Frida Kahlo was a game-changer. In post-revolutionary Mexico, the surrealist artist celebrated indigenous heritage through her paintings – mostly self portraits – at a time when the country’s national identity was fragmented. Kahlo placed her own identities – disabled, gender-bending, bisexual, woman, and communist – front and center in her autobiographical pieces. In the decades since, her works have made her a feminist and LGBTQ icon. However, she didn’t receive as much acclaim in her day as she has posthumously. She’s now recognized as one of Mexico’s greatest artists and cultural icons.
In 2016, her 1939 Two Nudes in the Forest (The Land Itself) painting sold for more than $8 million, temporarily making her the best-selling Latin American painter of all time. And her reach has extended far beyond the borders of Mexico. In the United States, exhibitions centered around her work have set records on multiple occasions.
While worthy of all her popularity, Kahlo’s spotlight has cast a shadow over other Mexican female creatives. Between the 1920s and 1940s, art was still closely associated with masculinity in Mexico, but Kahlo and her female contemporaries centered women’s rights in their work. Kahlo receives a lot of credit for paving the way in a male-dominated world, but many of her colleagues were also barrier-breakers, who deserve praise for their work. As such, we have highlighted a list of women making art between 1925 and 1954 – roughly the time period that Kahlo produced her nearly 200 paintings. The list below features talented women who came from poverty, challenged the art world’s sexism, and faced immense loss but found beauty, strength and resistance through their art.
While not a household name on par with Kahlo, María Izquierdo is considered one of the great Mexican painters. Born in the small village of San Juan de Los Lagos in 1902, Izquierdo – like many other young women at the time – was married off at age 14 to an army colonel. The pair had three children, and in 1923 they relocated to Mexico City. There, Izquierdo, bored of life, decided to take her first painting and sculpture classes – something that brought her real joy.
Four years later, at 25, Izquierdo left her husband and studied art full time at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City. She only attended the school for one year, but she ended up meeting Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera, who both became major influences in her life. Tamayo, who she became romantically involved with, taught her watercolor and gouache. Rivera, who mentored her, helped Izquierdo get her first exhibition at the Galeria de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 1929. That same year, she became the first Mexican woman to have a solo exhibition in the United States – first in the New York Art center. In the next couple years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art also featured her work.
Many of Izquierdo’s pieces could be defined as surrealism, but she herself rejected the label. By 1936, Izquierdo earned the description of “best contemporary Mexican painter” – and she did all this as a single mother. In 1948, Izquierdo suffered an embolism that left her paralyzed on her right side, which sadly took a toll on her work. She died in Mexico City in 1955.
While largely underrepresented, she has received accolades posthumously. In 2002, Mexico City’s National Commission for Arts and Culture declared her a Monumento Artístico de la Nación. This recognition ensures her art will be protected and studied for generations to come.
Rosario Cabrera was among the first modern female painters in Mexico, studying art at the Academia de San Carlos long before esteemed painters like Frida Kahlo and María Izquierdo. Cabrera, however, didn’t just make history as one of the first; she also stood out as one of the best in her class. In 1918, the Mexico City-born artist received the highest grade in her school because of her skill in painting, sculpture, and etching. Because of the accomplishment, she received a special medal along with her diploma.
She’d go on to rack up more honors after the the academy. In 1929, at the Iberoamerican Fair in Seville, Spain, she earned the gold medal, and in 1972, former Mexican President Luis Echeverría Alvarez honored her with the medal of Maestro Manuel Ignacio Altamirano.
During her lifetime, the trailblazing Cabrera became the first Mexican woman to exhibit in Paris at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1925. However, she didn’t paint for long. As Escuelas al Aire Libre – which served as an alternate school to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes – sprung up in Mexico in the early 1900s. Rosario became the first woman to lead one of these schools.
Aurora Reyes Flores
Aurora Reyes Flores is recognized as Mexico’s first female muralist. The pioneering artist’s work had strong political messages. Born in Hidalgo del Parral in 1908, Reyes and her family – many of them in the military – fled to Mexico City after the start of the Mexican Revolution.
At 13, she enrolled in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria and later in the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. She held her first solo exhibition in 1925 at the ARS Gallery, but later also traveled to the US, Cuba, and France to display her work. In one of her pieces, Mujer de la guerra (1934), she depicted a woman as both a mother and a warrior ready for combat. The woman holds her child in her child in her right arm and a gun in her left arm.
Her work also touched on education. Her 1936 Atentado a las maestras rurales – originally titled La maestra asesinada – shows a man, who holds money in his hand and steps over books, dragging a woman by the hair. Another man uses the butt of a rifle to viciously attack her. The books represent knowledge, the money stands in for the wealth of the bourgeoisie, and the rural teacher represents illustrates the country’s maternal figure.
Her paintings often tackled issues of poverty and workers’ rights, particularly with the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Enseñanza de la República Mexicana (STERM), which later became the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE). In July 1960, she proposed painting four murals at the Auditorio 15 de mayo to Alfonso Lozano Bernal, the secretary general of the Comité Ejecutivo Nacional. Combined, the four murals present Mexico as a nation of cultural richness that is ever evolving despite the crises that arise. Through the struggle of leaders, the country will head toward a future of peace and harmony.
Nicknamed “Magnolia Iracunda,” Reyes actively participated in politics. She belonged to the Mexican Communist Party, advocated for women’s suffrage, helped create daycare center for children, and participated in hunger strikes for the release of Mexican political prisoners.
Natalia Baquedano Hurtado
Natalia Baquedano Hurtado is the mother of Mexican photography. The Querétaro-born artist, considered a “pioneer female photographer,” worked from the late 1800s until her death in 1936 at age 64.
Described by historians as an “independent woman,” Baquedano traded marriage and children for a career at a time when women were considered little more than caregivers. Focusing on her flourishing career allowed her to open her first studio, Fotografía Nacional, in Mexico City in 1898. It became one of Mexico’s earliest woman-owned workshops. There, she invented a technique of printing portraits onto flowers and leaves. At the time, male photographer Lauro Ariscorreta claimed he invented the method, prompting Baquedano to successfully sue him for infringement.
Not only did she pave the way for other female photographer, she also centered women in her work. Her style – described as a combination of studio portrait-making and “pictorialism” – even helped portraiture gain popularity in Mexico.
Elena Huerta Muzquiz
Elena Huerta Muzquiz was a prominent Mexican muralist. Born into a family of politicos in Coahuila, Mexico, she always understood the power of the people. As an artist, she infused her work with leftist themes. Some of her murals included the faces of historic male Mexican activists. Others featured female protagonists and themes of women empowerment.
In her personal life, she belonged to the Communist Party, spending many years in the Soviet Union with her husband and children. The pair divorced upon returning to Mexico in 1948. Alone, Huerta raised her children and built her career simultaneously.
Despite the death of two of her children, Huerta authored several books, taught drawings, print, and painting, formed a children’s puppet theater company, founded revolutionary groups, and broke barriers for female muralists. At 65, she painted a 4,843-foot mural, which remains the largest piece ever created by a woman in Mexico. Huerta died in 1997 at 89 years old.
Celia Calderón is one of Mexico’s most acclaimed printmakers. The Guanajuato-born artist trained in the arts at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. She learned engraving from Julio Castellanos, a professor she became romantically involved with.
She then studied at the Escuela de las Artes del Libre, where she learned graphic art. By this time, she had received recognition for her art. She used her esteem to co-found Sociedad Mexicana de Grabadores. Years later, she showed her prints and paintings, which mostly consisted of notable figures and Mexican heroes, at a solo exhibition with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. In 1950, the British Council, impressed by her work, offered Calderón a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Seven years later, she caught the attention of the Soviet Union, which helped her travel to China to study at the Beijing Artists’ Center. While there, she had another opportunity to exhibit her art. Throughout her career, Calderón got to travel the world.
The groundbreaker became the Academia de San Carlos’ first female teacher. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1969 at the institution.
Rina Lazo is a famed Guatemalan-Mexican muralist. Born in Guatemala City in 1923, she moved to Mexico in 1945 after receiving a scholarship from then-Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo. There, she attended school at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado, or La Esmeralda. She quickly became Diego Rivera’s favorite student, and he her most-liked teacher. Rivera, along with wife Frida Kahlo, became mentors to Lazo, and from 1947 until Rivera’s death in 1957, she worked as his assistant.
Together, the two worked on several murals throughout Mexico. However, they painted their last piece, La Gloriosa Victoria, in Guatemala. It represented the demise of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz, with Lazo herself depicted as a young guerilla fighter. But Lazo also completed mural projects as a solo artist. While less popular, she has even won awards for her canvas paintings, which have shown in Germany, Austria, France, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries. In Guatemala, she received the Order of the Quetzal and a Medal of Peace. In Mexico, where she resides and remains committed to social struggles, she is a celebrated member of the Mexican muralism movement.
Isabel Villaseñor is a beloved Mexican sculptor, printmaker, painter, songwriter and poet. Born in Guadalajara in 1909, she studied sculpture in 1928 at Mexico City’s Centro Popular de Pintura, or Santiago Rebull. There, she met the school’s founder, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, who’d become her teacher and later her husband.
In 1930 – the same year she graduated – the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her and just one other woman in its seminal show, Mexican Arts. One year later, Villaseñor held her first solo exhibition at the National Library of Mexico, joined ¡30-30! – a collective of revolutionary-minded artists – painted a mural on a school wall in Hidalgo, and took on a job as a teacher.
Esteemed Mexican painter María Izquierdo described Villaseñor, whose art largely dealt with indigeneity, as one of just two of “the only real Mexicans in their work,” the other being Frida Kahlo.
In 1934, Villaseñor’s son passed away, forever impacting her work. She lost interest in writing and most of her art began to focus on motherhood, with Villaseñor oftentimes painting figures without faces. She died in 1953 of a heart attack in her early 40s.
Sarah Jiménez Vernis
Born in Coahuila, Sarah Jiménez Vernis became known for her political graphic pieces. In 1947, at 20 years old, she moved to Mexico City, where her dad, a medic in the Mexican Revolution, sent her to study business. She listened, but later transferred to La Esmeralda to learn sculpture. As an artist, she gained popularity for creating paintings, sculptures and engravings with political elements. Her work has even been described as “leftist and confrontational.” One of her most popular portraits is of Emiliano Zapata.
Later in her career, she became a member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana. Around this time, she shifted from making art to teaching it. However, in 1954, she and several artists painted a mural at the Escuela Belisario Dominguez. In true Jiménez fashion, her part of the mural illustrated a dead Mexican Revolution soldier.
This March, Jiménez, one of the earlier female political artists in Mexico, died from heart failure at age 90.
Cordelia Urueta Sierra
Cordelia Urueta Sierra was a Mexican artist unlike others on this list. Born in Coyoacán in a 1908 to a well-off family of intellectuals and artists, Urueta’s love for painting began in her childhood. Yet, she didn’t receive a formal art education. She did become an art teacher between 1932 and 1938.
Later, she moved to Paris, and on her return in 1950, she pursued painting professionally. Urueta, while not a force in Mexico’s art scene, received international acclaim, particularly for her use of color and abstraction. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her worked appeared in exhibits in Mexico, France, Jerusalem, Scandinavia, Peru, Honduras, Japan and New York. In 1961, she won the Interamericana de Pintura and the VI Bienal in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Urueta was ill for much of her life, and passed away in 1995 at the age of 87. Her art is part of a permanent collection at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.