We are grateful to Professor Luis-Martín Lozano for his assistance cataloguing this work.
The most influential Mexican artist of his time, Diego Rivera, was a towering figure in the development of modern art in his native country. Rivera’s remarkable opus including his earliest modernist paintings executed during his years in Europe and his numerous murals both in Mexico and the United States; his political fervor for leftist causes that championed social equality and his larger-than-life persona, helped create the epic figure he became during his lifetime. A precocious talent, Rivera began his studies at the San Carlos Academy at the age of ten and earned a scholarship to attend full-time studies just as he turned eleven in 1897. By the age of twenty-one, the budding artist had departed for Europe, but, after nearly a decade and a half of living and working there, Rivera was convinced that Mexico was the ‘promised land’ for the birth of a new art.  At the urging of friend Alberto J. Pani who was the Mexican ambassador to France, in 1920 Rivera traveled to Italy where he studied the Renaissance frescoes of Michelangelo, Giotto, Mantegna, among others. This sojourn proved to be pivotal in his resolve to create an art that coincided with his sociopolitical ideals, portrayed the rich and complex history of Mexico and contemporary daily life, and above all, resonated with the masses. Finally returning to Mexico in 1921, he was to become the leading force in the creation of the muralist movement and the flowering of the arts in service to the nation.
Engaged immediately with the national muralist project headed by the newly appointed Minister of Education José de Vasconcelos, Rivera embarked on the execution of various murals in which his depiction of ancient Mexicans was noble and heroic, their deeds and myths illustrated in brilliant colors in grand panoramas. Equally vibrant were his murals that glorified more recent events such as the Mexican Revolution and its protagonists. The artist’s style—a fusion of a modernist aesthetic—stark and almost cubist, with a classic realism, reflected his interests in discovering and portraying his fellow countrymen and women in the light of a new era that sought to break from the past of the usual folkloric representations.
A break from the past and an affirmation of the modern, Rivera’s nudes feature prominently throughout his artistic production as emblems of nature, fecundity, and the power of the feminine essence. In his murals for the chapel at the Autonomous University of Chapingo, his then-pregnant wife Guadalupe Marín dominates the front arch as a reclining monumental nude who personifies the female creator in La Tierra liberada. In his easel paintings, they are always representations of Mexico’s luminous beauty.
Stunningly simple, Nieves desnuda de rodillas sobre un petate is nevertheless startlingly eloquent for its rendering of the female form. In this painting, a certain modesty is noted in the manner Rivera has portrayed his subject. Nieves’s face is hidden from view while resting on a petate, a mat handwoven from palm leaves used for sleeping in Mexico and Central America. The dazzling yellow of the mat creates a stark contrast in color and aids in emphasizing the young woman’s sculptural figure and glowing bronze skin. Rivera’s biographer, Bertram Wolfe, remarked in his book Portrait of Mexico, about the omnipresent petate as potent symbol of life for the humblest of Mexicans where many are born, sit, eat, sleep and lie dreaming in their youth; travel with and carry their possessions along; where they breathe their last breath, and their bodies wrapped before the earth receives them.
In a small portrait (Nieves Orozco, 1939), painted when she was barely seventeen and now in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Nieves is shown wearing neatly braided hair topped on her head creating a crown for her lovely face. Strikingly beautiful and poised, Nieves became Rivera’s favorite model and muse during the 1940s. Her timeless grace made her the ideal model for the artist who portrayed her in some of his most iconic works such as Desnudo con alcatraces (1944) and Mujer de rodillas con girasoles (1946) among others.
Born in 1922 in the town of Tezontepec in the state of Hidalgo, Nieves Orozco was a model at the San Carlos Academy where she met several artists and was eventually introduced by her friends to Rivera. Soon she became a member of the circle of those close to the artist. So enthralled and infatuated with Nieves, Rivera would send a car to Cuernavaca where she lived, to deliver her directly to his studio to sit for him for hours. Nieves eventually was also sought out by Rivera’s friends such as noted photographers, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Fritz Henle. Among the many photographs found in Frida Kahlo’s archives, was the image of Nieves at Rivera’s studio during the time he was working on this painting.
In 1958 Nieves married Frederick Vanderbilt Field, a great-great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of an American railroad and shipping empire. Living in Mexico, Vanderbilt had been on self-imposed exile for nearly thirty years due to his leftist politics. He and Nieves moved to the United States in 1982 and settled in Minneapolis. Nieves’s charmed life led her to meet and host personalities and celebrities including Marilyn Monroe who stayed at her home during a visit to Mexico. In late 2014, Nieves was interviewed during a visit to Mexico which coincided with the seventieth anniversary of Desnudo con alcatraces and reminisced about Rivera, his studio, dedication to his craft, and the transcendence of his extraordinary artistic legacy.
Margarita Aguilar, Doctoral Candidate, The Graduate Center, New York
1) L. Folgarait et al, Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution, Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Landucci Editores, 1999, 386.