Editorial Feature

Discover the legacy left by Dolores Olmedo

How the Mexican businesswoman created one of the country’s most important art institutions

Dolores Olmedo (1908–2002) was a Mexican businesswoman, philanthropist and musician. Although she is best known for her art collection and her friendship with Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

Born in Mexico City, Olmedo’s father was a businessman who died when she was four, and her mother was a well-connected school teacher with a passion for music and painting. Olmedo studied Philosophy, Law, Music and the History of Art in Mexico, and then went to Paris to study Anthropology, Museology and History of Art.

When she returned to Mexico, Olmedo decided to pursue a career in the construction industry. Her shrewd business sense brought her considerable success, and using the profits she made from her company she decided to invest in property. It was at her 16th century estate on the southern edge of Mexico City, bought in 1962, where she would eventually make her lifelong ambition of collecting art a reality. But first, a chance encounter with one of the most influential Mexican artists would set her on this path.

Olmedo first met Rivera aged 17 on a visit with her mother to the Ministry of Education building in Mexico City, where Rivera was working on a mural. The artist asked her mother's permission to paint Olmedo's portrait.

Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (1955) by Diego Rivera (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Portrait of Irene Phillips Olmedo (Dolores' daughter) by Diego Rivera (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Olmedo would appear in several of Rivera’s paintings as the years went by, including a portrait in 1955, which showed Olmedo holding a basket of tropical fruit and dressed in the colourful embroidered Tehuana Indian dress from southern Mexico.

In the three years before the artist’s death in 1957, Olmedo remained close with Rivera. In fact he spent his last years in her home at Acapulco. Here he painted a number of portraits of her and her children, as well as a series of 25 sunsets, 20 of which went on to become part of Olmedo’s own collection.

Sunset number 6 by Diego Rivera (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Sunset number 7 by Diego Rivera (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Shortly before Rivera’s death, Olmedo told him of her plans to create a museum to show his work, and he made a list of the paintings she should include. Olmedo set about acquiring the works he mentioned. Although Olmedo was often accused of being jealous of Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo, who’d died in 1954, Olmedo also collected 25 pieces by Kahlo. While it might not have been jealousy, it did appear Olmedo didn’t get along with Kahlo, once being quoted as saying: “Well she liked women and I like men. And I was not a Communist”.

The Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum opened its doors to the public in September 1994, with 137 works from Rivera. Today it still forms the most important collection of Rivera and Kahlo’s oeuvres. For decades, Olmedo controlled the estates of these Mexican artists. Although she eventually opened her collection to the public, she was reluctant for many years to give art experts and biographers access to the works and archives of Rivera and Kahlo. This carefree yet fiery quality was also channelled into what she chose to display in her museum. For instance, she once received some criticism for exhibiting photographs of herself with former Mexican presidents alongside Rivera paintings.

Dolores Olmedo by Diego Rivera (From the collection of Museo Robert Brady)

Despite the controversy, Olmedo did go on to play an important role in Mexican cultural life by organising and contributing to many exhibitions of Mexican art abroad. She also campaigned against the sale of Mexico’s treasures abroad.

Olmedo died in 2002, her age was, and still remains, a matter of debate, with many sources confirming different birthdates. Today most experts believe she was born in 1908, which would’ve made her 94. But in The New York Times’ obituary about her death, it cites her age as 88, so the mystery will never be truly solved.

Dolores Olmedo on Day of the Dead (From the collection Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Regardless, her focus in her final years was the museum and she’d made plans to secure the future of her collection after her death by leaving enough funds to help keep it going. Today, it’s now open to the public and the five-building complex contains up to 150 paintings, nearly 6,000 pre-Hispanic figurines and sculptures, as well as a diverse array of wildlife roaming in the gardens including geese, ducks and Indian peafowls.

Olmedo was recognisable for her blue-black hair scraped back and her fine collection of jewellery, but of course her legacy goes beyond her glamorous aesthetic. Rather she’s remembered for protecting Mexican culture and heritage, and for her genuine passion for the visual arts. Once asked how she would like to be remembered, she replied: ''Just as I am – a woman who did whatever she felt like doing, and luckily succeeded at it.''

Portrait of Dolores Olmedo by David Hockney (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
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