Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo

The Henry Ford

Explore the relationship between two innovative Mexican artists and an American auto magnate with design sensibilities.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit
From 1932 to 1933, artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera spent nine months in Detroit, as Rivera worked on "Detroit Industry," an ambitious fresco cycle at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).
Edsel Ford and “Detroit Industry”
Edsel Ford, then chairman of Detroit’s Art Commission and President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, commissioned “Detroit Industry” and maintained an active role throughout the project. His investment made sense personally, given his interest in the arts, and professionally, as Ford’s production methods inspired the work.

Edsel Ford himself was a designer. His design input on several Ford models, especially the Lincoln Continental, was an important contribution to the automotive industry.

Correspondence between Edsel Ford’s office and the DIA confirms his deep commitment to “Detroit Industry.” Ford agreed to hire a certain plasterer and addressed Diego Rivera’s requests for very specific types of glass and sand to be used in the creation of the frescoes.

Supporting “Detroit Industry”
Edsel Ford directed the resources of Ford Motor Company to support the “Detroit Industry” project. 

As Diego Rivera prepared to create “Detroit Industry,” he visited Ford’s sprawling Rouge plant. Rivera’s imagination was captured by the methods of production he observed, many of which appear in the finished fresco cycle.

During Rivera’s work on "Detroit Industry," Ford Motor Company supplied images of various aspects of the Rouge plant. This photograph was taken by Ford’s Photographic Department specifically for Rivera, who included workers retrieving their pay from a similar truck in the frescoes.

Ford Motor Company’s Photographic Department also provided Rivera with images of people. Photographs of Edsel Ford informed his appearance in the “Detroit Industry” frescoes and a personal portrait commissioned separately.

Documenting “Detroit Industry” 
Ford Motor Company photographed Diego Rivera's progress on the “Detroit Industry” frescoes, and documented other events related to the project.

Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, emerged as an artist in her own right during her time in Detroit.

At the end of the project, Edsel Ford provided negatives and prints of all the documentary photos to the DIA.

Beyond “Detroit Industry”
The relationship between Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo went beyond the “Detroit Industry” frescoes.

Several dozen photographs documenting Ford Motor Company’s Mexico City plant are dated 1932 and marked “Kahlo Foto.”

These were likely taken by Frida Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, who photographed important architectural and industrial sites in Mexico.

Frida Kahlo and Edsel Ford remained in communication after the frescoes were completed, exchanging a series of letters into the 1940s.

In this letter, Edsel Ford praised the “Detroit Industry” frescoes.

Diego Rivera reported that Edsel Ford acted with "simplicity and directness." His father, Henry Ford, remarked that Edsel was "the artist in our family." These traits sparked the famous “Detroit Industry” frescoes, and a seemingly unlikely relationship between an American auto magnate and two innovative Mexican artists.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

Visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections for more artifacts related to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Edsel Ford, or visit our blog to learn more about our related collections.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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