9682 - Rivera, 'Matilde Palou'

Update: The Diego Rivera portrait of Matilde Palou sold for $2.4 million.

What you see: Retrato de la Actriz Matilde Palou, a 1951 portrait by Diego Rivera. Sotheby’s estimates it at $2 million to $3 million.

Who is Diego Rivera? He was a great 20th century Mexican painter who married Frida Kahlo twice, and was her husband when she died in 1954. His murals grace the walls of the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Palacio de Bellas Arts in Mexico City. A 1933 mural commission for Rockefeller Center in New York was halted after he refused to remove a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. (The Mexico City mural is a version of the abandoned Manhattan mural.) Rivera died in 1957 at the age of 70.

Who is Matilde Palou? She was a Chilean actress who worked with the legendary Spanish director Luis Buñuel. She was about 40 when she posed for Rivera. She died in 1970 at the age of 64.

Why did Rivera paint this portrait? “The exact reason why he painted it, and why the actress was painted in an outrageously patriotic dress, is a mystery to us,” says Axel Stein, head of Sotheby’s Latin American art department, adding that Rivera painted portraits throughout his entire career, and in the last 10 years of his life, he painted several actresses.

This oil-on-canvas measures 80 1/2 inches by 48 1/4 inches. How unusual was it for Rivera to paint a portrait of this size? “Large portraits are rare in Rivera. I’ve seen less than 15 portraits this large in his catalogue raisonné,” he says, adding that something of this nature comes up about once every 10 years.

What is the meaning of the symbols on Palou’s dress? “We’re not able to identify them all, but they’re about Mexico, and Mexico City,” he says, picking out a prominent image on the second tier of the skirt of the dress that shows an eagle standing on a cactus and holding a serpent in its mouth. The motif alludes to an Aztec tale about the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan, and it appears on the Mexican flag. Her dress also reflects the style of the region of Chapa de Corzo, which is near the Guatemalan border.

What else makes this work special? “Diego Rivera is about the power of the image. When you see this in person, there is power,” he says. “I brought her [this portrait] to a highlights exhibition in Los Angeles a month ago. People who came into the exhibit who didn’t know Rivera asked, ‘Who is this?’ You cannot go by and pretend you haven’t seen it. It leaves you in a state of wonder.”

How to bid: The Rivera portrait is lot 8 in the Latin America: Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s New York on May 25.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.