Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo

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

By The Henry Ford

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1932 (1932-08-02) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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).

Portrait of Edsel Ford, 1929 (1929)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

1941 Lincoln Continental Convertible, Owned by Edsel B. Ford (1941) by Ford Motor Company. Lincoln DivisionOriginal Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=171875

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.

Letter from Clyde Burroughs to Edsel Ford regarding Engagement of Assistant Plasterer, 16 March 1932, Burroughs, Clyde H. (Clyde Huntley), 1882-1973, 1932-03-16, Original Source: Digital Collections
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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.

Letter from A. J. Lepine (for Edsel Ford) to Clyde Burroughs regarding Engagement of Assistant Plasterer, March 18, 1932, Lepine, Alfred Joseph (A. J.), 1885-1972, 1932-03-18, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Letter from Clyde Burroughs to A. J. Lepine (for Edsel Ford) regarding Sand Used in Rivera Frescos, April 19, 1932, Burroughs, Clyde H. (Clyde Huntley), 1882-1973, 1932-04-19, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Detail of Diego Rivera "Detroit Industry" Mural, 1933 (1933) by Detroit Institute of ArtsOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Supporting “Detroit
Industry”

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

Final Assembly of 1932 Ford Model 18 V-8 Automobiles, Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan (1932-06-30) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Ford Workers Getting Wages from Payroll Truck, 1932-1933 (1932/1933) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Memo from William Roegner to A. J. Lepine (for Edsel Ford) regarding Supply of Edsel Ford Photograph to Diego Rivera, October 25, 1932 (1932-10-25) by Roegner, William O. and Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Diego Rivera Working on the "Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle at Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932 (1932-08-02) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Documenting “Detroit
Industry” 

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

Diego Rivera Working on the "Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle at Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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"Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle in Progress, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Diego Rivera Working on the "Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle at Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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"Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle in Progress, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Diego Rivera Working on the "Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle at Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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"Detroit Industry" Fresco Cycle in Progress, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Frida Kahlo Working on a Small Painting, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, emerged as an artist in her own right during her time in Detroit.

Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Albert Kahn, 1932, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1932-08-02, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Letter from Clyde Burroughs to Edsel Ford regarding Fresco Photographs, 5 June 1933, Burroughs, Clyde H. (Clyde Huntley), 1882-1973, 1933-06-05, Original Source: Digital Collections
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At the end of the project, Edsel Ford provided negatives and prints of all the documentary photos to the DIA.

Ford Motor Company Mexico City Plant, Interior, 1932 (1932) by Kahlo, GuillermoOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Beyond “Detroit
Industry”

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

Ford Motor Company Mexico City Plant, Exterior, 1932 (1932) by Kahlo, GuillermoOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Letter from Frida Kahlo to Edsel Ford regarding Ricardo Arias Vinas, February 21, 1941, Kahlo, Frida, 1941-02-21, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Frida Kahlo and Edsel Ford remained in communication after the frescoes were completed, exchanging a series of letters into the 1940s.

Letter from Edsel Ford to Frida Kahlo regarding Ricardo Arias Vinas, December 20, 1939, Ford, Edsel, 1893-1943, Ford Motor Company, 1939-12-20, Original Source: Digital Collections
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In this letter, Edsel Ford praised the “Detroit Industry” frescoes.

Oil Portrait of Edsel Ford by Diego Rivera, 1932 (1932) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

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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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