Frida Kahlo Biography – Mexican Artist, Painter, Folk Art, Chicano Art Movement, Legacy

Frida Kahlo biography
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Frida Kahlo. Image by Eugenio Hansen, OFS from Pixabay

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Frida Kahlo Biography and Legacy

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter who is widely regarded as one of the most influential and significant artists of the 20th century. She employed a naive folk art style in her paintings to explore questions of identity, gender, race, class, and postcolonialism in Mexican society.

Kahlo’s work is now celebrated by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form and is considered a symbol of Mexican national and indigenous traditions across the world.

Early Life

Frida Kahlo, born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, was born on 6th July 1907 in the village of Coyoacan on the outskirts of Mexico City, to german-Mexican photographer Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon y Gonzales.

Kahlo was the third of four daughters, her siblings being Matilde, Adriana, and Cristina. She also had two half-sisters from her father’s first marriage, both of whom were raised in a convent.

Kahlo would later describe her childhood home as being very sad and depressing. Her parents were often sick and according to her, no love existed in their marriage. She had a tense relationship with her mother, whom she described as kind, active, and intelligent, but also calculating, cruel, and fanatically religious.

The onset and success of the Mexican revolution disrupted her father’s photography business as the government did not commission works from him as regularly as they did before. The almost decade-long revolution also limited the number of private clients he could take on.

Relationship with Her Father

Kahlo’s relationship with her father was great and she would cherish it later on in life as well. She credited him for making her childhood marvelous by being an example to her of tenderness, art, and work, and for understanding all her problems.

After contracting polio at the age of 6, Frida Kahlo was forced to be isolated from her friends for months. Polio made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left one, which led her to be bullied often.

Her illness and disability made her closer to her father, who was also often sick. He taught her about philosophy, nature, and literature, and he even encouraged her to play sports to regain her strength at a time when physical exercise was considered unsuitable for girls.

He also taught her the basics of photography and she soon began to help him retouch, develop, and color his photographs.


Due to Polio, Frida Kahlo began her schooling later than kids her age. She was enrolled at the local kindergarten and primary school along with her sister Cristina. For the 5th and 6th grades, she was schooled at home.

Kahlo’s sisters were soon enrolled in a convent school but Kahlo, as per her father’s wishes, was enrolled in a German school. But her stay at the school was brief, as she was soon expelled for disobedience.

She was then sent to a vocational teachers’ school, where she suffered from sexual abuse by a female teacher, forcing her to leave the school after a brief stint.

In 1922, Kahlo, aged 15, enrolled at the elite National Preparatory School, where she began studying the natural sciences in the hope of becoming a physician. She was just one of 35 girls out of 2000 students.

Kahlo would be deeply influenced by the teachings of the school and by what she read during this period. The school promoted and encouraged indigenismo (a Latin American political ideology that attempted to construct the role of indigenous populations in the nation-state) by instilling in students a new sense of Mexican identity that took pride in the nation’s indigenous heritage and traditions and sought to rid itself of the colonial mindset of Europe being superior to Mexico.

During this period, she became deeply committed to and influenced by Mexican culture, social justice, and political activism, because of her extensive reading. This sense of identity that she discovered would inspire her paintings later on.

Interest in Art

Frida Kahlo became interested in art at a very early age and began receiving drawing instruction from a printmaker named Fernando Fernandez, who was her father’s friend.

She would practice her drawing in notebooks, filling them up with sketches.

In 1925, she began working as a stenographer and then as a paid engraving apprentice for Fernandez, while also attending school.

Although Kahlo was passionate about art, she had not thought of it as a career option yet.

The Bus Accident

On 17th September 1925, Frida Kahlo suffered an accident that would affect the rest of her life.

On that day, while returning home from school along with her boyfriend Arias on a bus, the bus crashed into an oncoming streetcar and was dragged a few feet. The accident resulted in the death of many passengers and several were seriously injured, including Kahlo. Arias escaped with minor injuries but Kahlo’s condition was bad.

Her spine was broken in three places, her collar bone was broken, her shoulder was dislocated, her pelvic bone was fractured, her right leg was broken in eleven places and her foot was crushed and dislocated, her uterus and abdomen had been punctured, and three vertebrae were displaced.

Kahlo spent the next month in the hospital and two months recovering at home. After this three-month recovery period, she was somewhat able to get back to normal life, but she continued to experience fatigue and back pain.

Although she was able to get back to her usual life within two years, the injuries she suffered would continue to plague her for the rest of her life.

Recovery Period

During her recovery period, Frida Kahlo turned to art for distraction and solace. With the specially-made easel given to her by her mother and the oil paints given to her by her father, she began to paint in bed while recovering.

This would turn out to be a transformative period for her. She made several portraits of herself and of her sisters and school friends during this time. She would later explain that she painted herself because she was often alone and she was the subject she knew best.

Being isolated during her recovery period rekindled her desire to start painting things just as she saw them with her own eyes and nothing more.

Joining the Mexican Communist Party

After recovering from her injuries, Frida Kahlo began socializing with her old school friends who were all in university by now and actively involved in student politics.

Influenced by their activities, she joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). Here she met and befriended several well-known political activists such as the exiled Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella, who was one of the founders of the original Communist Party of Cuba. She also met and became friends with artists like Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti.

Marriage to Diego Rivera

In 1928, at one of Tina Modotti’s parties, Frida Kahlo, aged 21, met 41-year-old Diego Rivera, who was by then a prominent painter and muralist.

After their meeting, Kahlo showed her paintings to Rivera for him to judge if they were good enough for her to pursue in earnest a career as an artist. Rivera was impressed by the authenticity and honesty of her paintings and considered her a true, authentic artist.

On 21st August 1929, barely a year after they first met each other, Kahlo and Rivera were married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacan.

This was Rivera’s third marriage. Kahlo’s mother was against the marriage but her father was in favor of it as Rivera was a respected, well-known, and wealthy artist, who could support Kahlo and the expensive medical treatments she had to undergo frequently.

Moving to Cuernavaca

After Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera married, they moved to the city of Cuernavaca in Morelos, where Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the Palace of Cortes.

It was in Cuernavaca that Kahlo developed an even stronger sense of Mexican identity and history. She began wearing traditional indigenous Mexican clothing that included long, colorful skirts, headdresses, jewelry, rebozos, huipils, etc.

Through her dressing style, she tried to represent indigenous Mexican cultural heritage, much like many other Mexican women intellectuals and artists of the time.

A significant change also took place in her artistic style upon moving to Cuernavaca. The city inspired her to focus on Mexican folk art, thereby changing the style and themes of her paintings. Her works began lacking perspective and included elements of pre-Columbian and colonial periods of Mexican art.

Visiting San Francisco

In late 1930, after Rivera finished his commission in Cuernavaca, he and Frida Kahlo traveled to San Francisco, where he was commissioned to paint murals for the Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts.

They were warmly welcomed and feted by the art collectors and clients there. The attention the couple received was due to Rivera’s fame as an artist. During this time, Kahlo traveled as his wife and not as an artist in her own right.

In San Francisco, she met several American artists such as Nickolas Muray, Ralph Stackpole, and Edward Weston.

The couple would go on to spend 6 months in the city, which was quite a productive period for Kahlo. During this period, she further developed and worked on her folk art style. She painted works like Frida and Diego Rivera and The Portrait of Luther Burbank. She also took part in her first exhibition by displaying her painting Frida and Diego Rivera in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists in the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Moving to Detroit

In April 1932, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera moved to Detroit, where Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

They would go on to spend around a year in Detroit, which was a difficult period for Kahlo as she experienced several health issues due to a failed pregnancy.

Kahlo also developed an intense dislike for the capitalist culture flourishing in the US and even described American society to be colonialist and imperialist in nature. She was introduced to industrialists such as Henry Ford and Edsel Ford, but she disliked socializing with capitalists.

Although she admired the industrial and mechanical development in the US, she despised the fact that while there were millions of people starving and dying of hunger, and people with no places to sleep, across the world, the rich in the US held lavish parties day and night. She was also angry after seeing that many hotels in Detroit refused to accept Jewish guests.

But in spite of her bad experiences in Detroit, artistically it was an interesting time for her. She experimented with different techniques like frescos and etchings and focused on the themes of pain, suffering, terror, wounds, etc. She painted devotional and religious paintings called retablos, which were made on small metal sheets, such as Self-Portrait on the Border of Mexico and the United States, Henry Ford Hospital, and My Birth.

Returning to Mexico

In early 1933, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera traveled to New York where Rivera had been commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center and then at the New Workers School.

By late 1933, Kahlo was homesick. The couple returned to Mexico after the unveiling of Rivera’s mural in December, even though Rivera did not wish to return.

Once back in Mexico, Kahlo and Rivera moved into the neighborhood of San Angel in a bohemian residence that quickly became a meeting place for political activists and artists.

During this period, their marriage came under strain. Rivera blamed Kahlo for their return and was very unhappy to be back in Mexico. They were also both unfaithful to each other by this time, both having affairs.

Adding to her marital problems, Kahlo’s health problems began once again. She underwent two abortions, the amputation of gangrenous toes, and her appendix removed.

Due to all these personal and health issues, Kahlo did not paint much during this period.

The Productive Years

By 1936, Frida Kahlo had resumed her political activities. She joined the Fourth International, a revolutionary socialist international organization that consisted of the followers of Russian Marxist revolutionary and political theorist Leon Trotsky.

She also became a founding member of a solidarity committee to provide aid to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1937, Kahlo and Rivera managed to persuade the Mexican government to grant asylum to Trotsky and his wife. They even offered Trotsky and his wife their residence to stay in.

1937 and 1938 would be the most productive years of Kahlo’s artistic career, wherein she painted more than she had done in the previous 8 years of marriage. Some of her well-known works during this period are Memory, the Heart, My Nurse and I, What the Water Gave Me, and Four Inhabitants of Mexico.


1938 would be a turning point in Kahlo’s artistic career.

The National Autonomous University of Mexico exhibited some of her paintings in early 1938. In the summer, film star and art collector Edward G. Robinson purchased four of her paintings, the first significant sale of her artworks.

The exhibition and sale of her artworks earned her some recognition at last. But things would improve further. In April of 1938, French surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton became impressed with Kahlo’s paintings, calling her a true surrealist.

Breton promised to organize an exhibition of her artworks in Paris and even wrote a letter to his friend Julien Levy, an art collector and owner of Julien Levy Gallery in New York, recommending her works.

First Solo Exhibition

Levy invited Frida Kahlo to hold her first solo exhibition at his gallery in November of 1938. The exhibition was attended by influential personalities such as politician and author Clare Boothe Luce and artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

The exhibition was a success and received mostly positive reviews. Out of 25 paintings displayed, around 12 were sold.

The success of the exhibition attracted much attention to her and her artworks, and she received commissions from Clare Boothe Luce, Anson Conger Goodyear (then president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and a few other clients.

Paris Exhibition

In January 1939, Frida Kahlo traveled to Paris, upon Andre Breton’s invitation the previous year, to hold an exhibition of her paintings.

However, things did not plan out as expected. Upon arriving in Paris, she found out that Breton had not cleared her paintings from customs and did not even own a gallery anymore.

Finally, with the help of Breton and French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, she arranged for an exhibition at the Renou et Colle Gallery. But things did not go her way or as she had expected. To start off, it was not a solo exhibition of her paintings as Breton had promised her the previous year. To make matters worse, the gallery was only willing to display two of her paintings, deeming the others too shocking for audiences.

The exhibition included several sculptures, photographs, 18th and 19th-century portraits from other Mexican artists, and a lot of toys, sugar skulls, and other items that Breton had bought from Mexican markets.

The exhibition opened in March and was not much of a success. The fear of the Second World War contributed to its failure. Financially, the exhibition was a loss to Kahlo.

But even though her paintings did not attract as much attention and acclaim in Paris as they had in the US, her visit was not all in vain. She met and was warmly received by artists such as Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who designed a dress inspired by her.

Kahlo was also featured on the pages of Vogue Paris. Most importantly, her painting, The Frame, was purchased by the Louvre, thereby making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection.

Return to Mexico and Second Productive Period

Upon returning to Mexico, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera divorced in November 1939. The divorce was primarily due to their mutual infidelities.

After their separation, Kahlo began another highly productive period of her career, which was fueled by her experiences abroad. She was also motivated to paint due to the recognition she was slowly gaining in Mexico and abroad.

She now began painting on large canvases instead of small sheets, as it was easier to exhibit them. She also developed a more sophisticated technique, limited graphic details, and made quarter-length portraits as they were easier to sell.

During this period, she would go on to paint some of her most famous works such as The Two Fridas, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, and The Wounded Table.

In 1940, three exhibitions, held in Mexico City, San Francisco, and New York, featured her paintings.

Growing Reputation as an Artist

By the early 1940s, Kahlo’s reputation as an artist had begun to soar. Her paintings, especially in the US, attracted much interest and attention and were now beginning to be frequently displayed in high-profile exhibitions in the US and in Mexico.

Her growing stature as an artist in the US dramatically increased the appreciation and demand for her works in Mexico as well. Her paintings were displayed at major exhibitions in Mexico and she even became a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, a group of 25 artists commissioned by the Ministry of Public Education to spread knowledge of Mexican culture.

Teaching Career and Failing Health

In 1943, Frida Kahlo began teaching at the newly established art school Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado, commonly known as “La Esmeralda.”

She asked her students to treat her informally and in a non-hierarchical manner. She also infused in them the importance and beauty of Mexican culture and folk art.

However, her health issues continued and became worse. Her spinal problems still caused her much pain and difficulty, a fungal infection on her right hand had become severe, and she began to experience pain in her legs as well.

As her health worsened, she became more and more confined to her residence, making it difficult for her to travel to school every day. Therefore, she began holding lessons at her residence itself, with many students, who came to be known as Los Fridos, becoming as good as her devotees.

Her paintings in the mid to late 1940s such as The Broken Column, Without Hope, The Wounded Deer, Tree of Hope, Stand Fast, etc., reflected her declining health.

Kahlo struggled to make a decent living through her art until the late 1940s, mainly due to her unwillingness to compromise her artistic integrity by painting works solely for commercial reasons.

In 1946, she received a 5000-peso national prize for her painting Moses. And the following year, her painting The Two Fridas was bought by the Museo de Arte Moderno. These two events served to improve her financial situation to some extent.

Final Years

In 1950, Frida Kahlo underwent an unsuccessful bone graft surgery on her spine. The surgery resulted in an infection, compelling her to undergo several follow-up surgeries. After being discharged, she was mostly confined to her residence and began using a wheelchair and crutches.

During this period, she painted still lifes, portraying fruits and flowers with political symbols such as doves and flags. Despite her failing health, she tried her best to remain politically active through her art as well as in real life through various causes.

In April 1953, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo arranged Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galeria Arte Contemporaneo after realizing that Kahlo did not have much longer to live.

The exhibition became a cultural event in Mexico and even received attention from the international press. Kahlo showed up at the exhibition against the wishes of her doctors in an ambulance and was then carried to a bed in the gallery.

In August of the same year, her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene. This left her depressed and she grew more dependent on painkillers. This was the most difficult period of her life and she contemplated and even attempted suicide.


In the spring of 1954, Frida Kahlo painted some of her last paintings, Viva La Vida, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, and Frida and Stalin.

On 13th July 1954, Kahlo, aged 47, was found dead in her bed in the early morning hours. The cause of her death was reported to be a pulmonary embolism.

However, many believe that she committed suicide, as her nurse found out that she had consumed eleven painkillers instead of the maximum prescribed seven. She had also given a wedding anniversary gift to Rivera almost a month in advance the previous evening, hinting at the fact that she intended to end her life soon.

In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated in an informal funeral ceremony. Her ashes are now displayed in a pre-Columbian urn at her residence La Casa Azul, which became a museum in 1958.


Since her death, Frida Kahlo has been widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century. She is also considered one of the most important 20th-century figures of Mexico.

Even though Kahlo’s work was relatively unknown until the 1970s (when it was rediscovered and promoted by art historians and political activists), the posthumous reputation and fame she and her artworks have received over the years have made her one of the most recognized figures in the history of art.

The Chicano Movement and several feminist and LGBTQ+ movements have claimed Kahlo as their icon post her death. In the late 1970s, two books on her life and art were published, her painting The Tree of Hope Stands Firm became her first painting to be sold at auction for $19,000, and two retrospectives of her works were staged in Chicago and Mexico City.

In the early 1980s, she would gain further fame across the world after a joint retrospective of her paintings along with Tina Modotti’s photographs was held in London, and then later traveled to Sweden, Germany, Mexico, and the US. Her biography, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by art historian Hayden Herrera, became an international bestseller in 1983.

By 1984, Kahlo’s stature as an artist had reached such heights that Mexico declared her paintings as part of the national cultural heritage, thereby prohibiting their export from the country.

Her paintings have gone on to sell for millions of dollars at auctions, making her the first Latin American artist to break the one million mark for a painting.

Kahlo’s rise toward becoming an iconic figure across the globe and the ever-increasing popular interest in her has given birth to the term Fridamania, to describe the phenomenon.

Now regarded as one of the most instantly recognizable artists, her image has been used and commercialized with a shared symbolism as the images of Bob Marley and Che Guevara, making her a true icon of the 20th century.