Biography of Frida Kahlo, Mexican Surrealist and Folk Art Painter

Her life was dramatized in a biopic nearly 50 years after her death

Frida Kahlo, shown about 1940

Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954), one of the few women painters that many can name, was known for her surrealistic paintings, including many emotionally intense self-portraits. Stricken with polio as a child and injured badly in an accident when she was 18, she struggled with pain and disability all her life. Her paintings reflect a modernist take on folk art and integrate her experience of suffering. Kahlo was married to artist Diego Rivera.

Fast Facts: Frida Kahlo

  • Known For: Mexican surrealist and folk art painter
  • Also Known As: Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, Frieda Kahlo, Frida Rivera, Mrs. Diego Rivera.
  • Born: July 6, 1907 in Mexico City
  • Parents: Matilde Calderón, Guillermo Kahlo
  • Died: July 13, 1954 in Mexico City
  • Education: National Preparatory School in Mexico City, entered 1922, studied medicine and medical illustration
  • Famous Paintings: The Two Fridas (1939), Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940)
  • Awards and Honors: National Prize of Arts and Sciences (conferred by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education, 1946)
  • Spouse: Diego Rivera (m. Aug. 21, 1929–1939, remarried 1940–1957)
  • Children: None
  • Notable Quote: "I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."

Early Life

Kahlo was born in a suburb of Mexico City on July 6, 1907. She later claimed 1910 as her year of birth because 1910 was the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. She was close to her father but not so close to her often-depressed mother. She was struck with polio when she was about 6 years old and while the illness was mild, it did cause her right leg to be withered—which led to the twisting of her spine and pelvis.

She entered the National Preparatory School in 1922 to study medicine and medical illustration, adopting a native style of dress.

The Trolley Accident

In 1925, Kahlo was nearly fatally injured when a trolley collided with the bus on which she was riding. She broke her back, pelvis, collarbone, and two ribs, her right foot was crushed, and her right leg was broken in 11 places. A handrail of the bus impaled her in the abdomen. She had surgeries throughout her life to try to correct the disabling effects of the accident.

Diego Rivera and Marriage

During the convalescence from her accident, she began to paint. Self-taught, in 1928 Kahlo sought out Mexican painter Diego Rivera, more than 20 years her senior, whom she'd met when she was in preparatory school. She asked him to comment on her work, which relied on bright colors and Mexican folk images. She joined the Young Communist League, which Rivera headed.

In 1929, Kahlo married Rivera in a civil ceremony despite her mother's protests. The couple moved to San Francisco for a year in 1930. It was his third marriage and he had many affairs, including with Kahlo's sister Cristina. Kahlo, in turn, had her own affairs, with both men and women. One of her brief affairs was with American painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

She changed the spelling of her first name from Frieda, the German spelling, to Frida, the Mexican spelling, in the 1930s as a protest against fascism. In 1932, Kahlo and Rivera lived in Michigan, where Kahlo miscarried a pregnancy. She immortalized her experience in a painting titled, "Henry Ford Hospital."

From 1937–1939, Leon Trotsky lived with the couple. Kahlo had an affair with the Communist revolutionary. She was often in pain from her disabilities and emotionally distraught from the marriage, and probably addicted to painkillers for a long time. Kahlo and Rivera divorced in 1939, but then Rivera convinced her to remarry the next year. Kahlo made that marriage contingent on remaining sexually separate and on her financial self-support.

Art Success

Kahlo's first solo show was in New York City, in 1938, after Rivera and Kahlo had moved back to Mexico. She had another show in 1943, also in New York. Kahlo produced many paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was not until 1953 that she finally had a one-woman show in Mexico. Her long struggle with her disabilities, however, had left her by this point an invalid, and she entered the exhibit on a stretcher and rested on a bed to receive visitors. Her right leg was amputated at the knee when it became gangrenous.


Kahlo died in Mexico City in 1954. Officially, she died of a pulmonary embolism, but some believe she deliberately overdosed on painkillers, welcoming an end to her suffering. Even in death, Kahlo was dramatic; when her body was being put into the crematorium, the heat caused her body to suddenly sit up.


Kahlo's work began to come to prominence in the 1970s. Much of her work is at the Museo Frida Kahlo (the Frida Kahlo Museum), also called the Blue House for its cobalt blue walls, which opened in 1958 in her former Mexico City residence. She is considered a forerunner to feminist art.

Indeed, Kahlo's life was depicted in the 2002 biopic, "Frida," starring Salma Hayek as the title character. The film received a 75 percent critic's score and an 85 percent audience score on the movie review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. It also received six Academy Award nominations (winning for Best Makeup and Best Original Score), including Hayek's nomination in the Best Actress category for her dramatic portrayal of the long-departed artist.


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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Frida Kahlo, Mexican Surrealist and Folk Art Painter." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Biography of Frida Kahlo, Mexican Surrealist and Folk Art Painter. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Frida Kahlo, Mexican Surrealist and Folk Art Painter." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).

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