Frida Kahlo at the Archives of American Art

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art presents an intimate view of Kahlo’s life and loves through her vibrant letters, candid photographs of her, and other documents drawn from our collections. Through these one-of-a-kind resources, we gain a deeper understanding of Kahlo’s relationships with historian Florence Arquin, artist Emmy Lou Packard, photographer Nickolas Muray, art collector Chester Dale, and writer John Weatherwax. 
Frida and Diego Rivera
Kahlo first met the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) in 1928, and they were married the following year. Many of the collections at the Archives of American Art which document Frida Kahlo's life also document her sometimes tumultuous relationship with Rivera. Photographs of Kahlo and Rivera span the early years of their marriage, like this portrait taken by Peter Juley, to their time travelling and working together in the United States, to their final years together in Coyoacán.

Diego Rivera was still married to his second wife, Guadalupe (Lupe) Marin when he met Frida Kahlo in 1928. Diego and Kahlo married on August 21, 1929, divorced in 1939, and then remarried in San Francisco on December 8, 1940.

According to Emmy Lou Packard, Kahlo left this note for Rivera in the studio on Treasure Island. She was leaving for New York, where she was involved with a trial having to do with Lupe Marín, Diego’s second wife.

This note was written while they were briefly divorced, between 1939 and late 1940.

When Dr. Leo Eloesser (a surgeon) admitted Kahlo to St. Luke’s Hospital for “rest” in September 1940, she placed her valuables (a watch and jewelry) in this envelope. We don’t know if the valuables were still in the envelope when she left it for Diego, or she simply used the empty envelope to write a note.

Translation: "Diego my love- Remember that once you finish the fresco we will be together forever once and for all, without arguments or anything, only to love one another. Behave yourself and do everything that Emmy Lou tells you. I adore you more than ever. Your girl, Frida (Write me)."

Frida and Florence Arquin
Florence Arquin (1900-1974), a painter and specialist in Latin American studies, traveled extensively in South America documenting the art and culture of the continent for numerous lectures she delivered in the United States.  In the early 1940s, while painting in Mexico, she developed close relationships with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. One of the tangible results was Arquin’s book "Diego Rivera: The Shaping of an Artist, 1889-1921," published in 1971. A personal friend of both Frida and Diego, Arquin's color photographs were taken in the courtyard of the "Blue House" where they lived, in the suburbs of Coyoacán, Mexico, and provide an intimate view of the artists at home.
Frida and Nikolas Muray
“My lover, my sweetest, mi Nick, mi vida, mi niño, te adoro …. All my tenderness and all my caresses to your body, from your head to your feet. Every inch of it I kiss from the distance,” wrote Frida Kahlo to Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) in 1939. Kahlo was then married to Diego Rivera. She was just beginning to gain international fame as a surrealist painter. Muray, a dashing Hungarian-American, was a popular and gifted photographer whose portraits of celebrities appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Time, and other magazines. While their intermittent affair may have begun in the early 1930s, Kahlo’s letters to Muray, reveal the intensity of her feelings for him—as well as her impetuous and uninhibited nature, often signing off with lipstick kisses.   

Despite the success of her exhibition, Kahlo remained unimpressed by the Parisian artistic elite. Adding to Kahlo's frustration with Paris, the menace of an impending war in Europe was suppressing the buying practices of otherwise generous collectors, forcing her to cancel an exhibition in London.

"... I decided that the same thing would be in London. So I am not going to make any exhibit in London. People in general are scared to death of the war and all the exhibition have been a failure, because the rich - don't want to buy anything".

Photograph of a gathering at the Rivera's San Angel, Mexico City, Mexico home.

Two women who served as models for Diego Rivera sit on the far left.

Diego Rivera sits behind Nikolas Muray, center.

Frida Kahlo sits on the far right.

Frida and Emmy Lou Packard
In 1940 artist Emmy Lou Packard (1914-1998) was a full-time painting assistant to Rivera who was working on his fresco, Pan-American Unity, for the World's Fair in San Francisco (the Golden Gate International Exposition) at a studio on Treasure Island.  She later lived with Frida and Diego in the “Blue House” in Mexico.  Packard’s papers include her candid photographs of the couple, many with notes on the back describing the moment, as well as letters from Kahlo to Packard. 

This letter to Packard was written from New York City where Frida was arranging a second exhibition with New York art dealer, Julien Levy. While working with Packard in San Francisco in 1940, Rivera developed difficulties with his vision and required medical attention. In the letter, Frida expresses her concern over her husband's health and asks Packard to sincerely tell her if his condition is grave enough that she should leave New York for San Francisco immediately.

"Emmy Lou my darling, Please forgive for writing you in pencil – can't find any fountain pen or ink in this house. I am terribly worried about Diego's eyes. Please tell me the exact truth about it. If he is not feeling better I will scram from here at once. Some doctor here told me that the sulphamilamid sometimes is dangerous. Please darling ask Dr. Eloesser about it. Tell him all the symptoms Diego has after taking the pills. He will know because he knows about Diego's condition in general. I am so happy he is near you. I can't tell you how much I love you for being so good to him and being so kind to me."

Frida also offers a reply to Packard regarding one of her drawings and an exhibition at the Julien Levy gallery.

"Darling, Julien Levy liked very much your drawing but he can't give you an exhibition because he says he only shows Surrealist paintings. I will talk to Pierre Mathisse [Matisse] and I am sure I can arrange something here for you next year. I still like the first one you made of me better that the others".

Kahlo refers to Pierre Matisse, the younger son of the French artist Henri Matisse, who opened a gallery in New York in 1931, dealing in European modern and contemporary artists, such as Balthus, Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Georges Rouault, and Yves Tanguy. Although Emmy Lou Packard did not exhibit at the Henri Matisse Gallery she secured an exhibition in 1941 at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles.

Frida and Chester Dale
Art collector and patron Chester Dale (1883-1962) purchased at least one of Kahlo’s paintings and provided financial support to the artist. Included in Dale’s papers are photographs from when Dale first visited Kahlo and Rivera in the 1940s. The two had just recently remarried and moved back into “The Blue House,” Frida’s family home in Coyoacán. By 1940, Rivera was an international celebrity in the art world, known for his monumental mural paintings made in Mexico and the United States. Kahlo was on the verge of great success and acclaim, despite suffering life-long health problems and enduring many back surgeries and long recoveries.  Her bedroom became her studio and her bed became a place from which she held court to lovers, husbands, and, on this day, an art collector eager to meet the (at least temporarily) happy couple. In 1945 Rivera completed a portrait of Dale, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Also found in Chester Dale's papers is a photograph taken in the San Francisco studio of sculptor Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), who Rivera had known in Paris. Stackpole, along with, William Gerstle, president of the San Francisco Art Commission, helped Rivera secure mural commissions in San Francisco in 1930.

Frida and John Weatherwax
John Weatherwax (1900-1984) met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Francisco around 1930, when the couple stayed with sculptor Ralph Stackpole in his studio on Montgomery Street. Rivera was there to work on a commission to paint a mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange. At the time Weatherwax was working on an English translation of the ancient Mayan codex, Popol Vuh, and asked Rivera if he would provide illustrations for the manuscript. Although the translation was never published, Rivera agreed and produced twenty-four watercolor illustrations for the text. Weatherwax revealed his admiration for Diego and Frida by writing a manuscript titled "The Queen of Montgomery Street," a clever short story about Frida's and Diego's experiences in San Francisco. Probably written as a gift to the Riveras, in this short story, the “King” and “Queen,” were modeled after Diego and Frida.  

In this illustrated letter to friends Clara and Gerry Strang, Kahlo playfully refers to herself as "The Queen" and to Diego as "The King". The following coquettish lines from Kahlo's letter may refer to Weatherwax's short story which Kahlo may have been waiting for Weatherwax to complete.

"Please tell him that my decision is that when I be in San Francisco again (probably in January) He will have no beard anymore [she was told John Weatherwax had grown a beard] And if he disobey my decision he will be put in jail immediately. He must be afraid because I am very cruel Queen. Please tell him I am waiting for my "History", and I hope that will be finished before I change my kingdom from here!"

She signs the letter, "Queen Freida The first"

Kahlo's German father, Guillermo Kahlo named his daughter "Frieda", German for "Peace". Around 1935, during the rise of Nazism, she dropped the e in spelling of her name.

Frida and Juan O'Gorman
Frida Kahlo passed away July 13, 1954. Juan O'Gorman (1905-1982), architect and painter, wrote this moving essay for the tenth anniversary of Frida Kahlo's death, found in the papers of Emmy Lou Packard and annotated with her notes. O'Gorman, a friend of Diego Rivera, was the architect of the twin concrete houses built 1929-1931, one red for Rivera, and one blue for Kahlo. The two structures, linked by a bridge, are where the couple lived and worked together.

Juan O'Gorman's essay was translated from Spanish to English by Emmy Lou Packard.

By the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Credits: Story

This online exhibit highlighting the life, art and relationships of Frida Kahlo was organized by the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.

Founded in 1954, the Archives of American Art fosters advanced research through the accumulation and dissemination of primary sources, unequaled in historical depth and breadth, that document more than two hundred years of our nation’s artists and art communities. The Archives provides access to these materials through its exhibitions and publications, including the Archives of American Art Journal, the longest-running scholarly journal in the field of American art. An international leader in the digitizing of archival collections, the Archives also makes nearly 2.5 million digital images freely available online. The Archives’ oral history collection includes more than 2,300 audio interviews, the largest accumulation of in-depth, first-person accounts of the American art world.

For more information, visit the Archives' website at

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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