Biography of Artist Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo about 1940
Frida Kahlo about 1940. Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Frida Kahlo, 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. Frida Kahlo was married to artist Diego Rivera.

Fast Facts: Frida Kahlo

  • Occupation: artist
  • Born: July 6, 1907
  • Died: July 13, 1954
  • Also Known As: Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, Frieda Kahlo, Frida Rivera, Mrs. Diego Rivera.
  • Education: National Preparatory School in Mexico City, entered 1922, studied medicine and medical illustration.
  • Family: Mother: Matilde Calderón; Spanish-Indian heritage. Father: Guillermo Kahlo, photographer; German and Hungarian Jewish heritage. Five sisters, plus a brother who died in infancy. Spouse: Diego Rivera (married August 21, 1929, divorced 1939, remarried 1940; painter). No children
  • Religion: Kahlo's mother was strongly Catholic, and her father Jewish; Kahlo resisted association with the Catholic church.

Early Life

Frida Kahlo was born in a suburb of Mexico City in 1907. She later claimed 1910 as her year of birth, as 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 six, and while the illness was mild, it did cause her right leg to be withered, which led to 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, Frida Kahlo was nearly fatally injured in a bus accident, when a trolley collided with the bus she was riding. She broke her back and pelvis, fractured her collarbone and two ribs, and her right foot was crushed and her right leg 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 she 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, Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera in a civil ceremony, over her mother's protests. They moved to San Francisco for a year in 1930. It was his third marriage, and he had many affairs, including with her sister Cristina. She, in turn, had affairs, with both men and women. One of her brief affairs was with American painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

In the 1930s, in protest of fascism, she changed the spelling of her first name from Frieda, the German spelling, to Frida, the Mexican spelling.

In 1932, Kahlo and Rivera lived in Michigan, in the United States, where Frida Kahlo miscarried a pregnancy. She immortalized her experience in a painting, Henry Ford Hospital.

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

Art Success

Frida 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.

Frida 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.

Frida Kahlo's Death and Legacy

Frida 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, Frida Kahlo was dramatic; when her body was being put into the crematorium, the heat caused her body to suddenly sit up.

Frida Kahlo's work began to come to prominence in the 1970s. Much of her work is at the Frida Kahlo Museum which opened in 1958 in her former residence.

She is considered a forerunner to feminist art.

Selected Frida Kahlo Quotations

  • "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."
  • "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best."
  • "At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can."
  • "I paint flowers so they will not die."
  • "There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst."
  • "I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband."
  • "I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was."
  • "O'Keefe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn't make love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad."
  • "I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim."