Long before the Capitol insurrection, long before the War in Ukraine, long before our nail-biting mid-term elections, Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh were two long-dead artists who were beloved throughout much of the world. That has not changed. Much has changed in the world, but not that.
Frida Kahlo’s image is just about everywhere you go in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a 16th century city with cobblestone streets and a cathedral that looks like a fairytale. When I visited in early November, the city’s Day of the Dead celebrations had just ended. The decorations were still up, but even when they’re not, Frida lives on. The artist and feminist icon is a year-round presence in shops and galleries and restaurants.
Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration, even if the skeleton figures you see around San Miguel—decorating buildings, for sale in various shops, roaming the streets on stilts—seem somewhat macabre despite their fancy clothes. There’s no escaping death but isn’t it ‘loverly’ to imagine the people we leave behind setting aside time to remember us. For the good things we did, for the pleasure of our company, for simple kindnesses.
And then there’s Frida, a woman more famous in death than in life. An artist who’s celebrated throughout the year in countless ways by millions of admirers. It’s not just her distinctive paintings they admire. It’s what she went through—what she lived through—before dying too young at forty-seven. Late last year, in 2021, Frida’s self-portrait “Diego and I” sold for $34.9 million in New York City, the highest price paid for a painting by a Latin American artist. She was married to the famous muralist Diego Rivera, but her fame has long since eclipsed his.
Frida could’ve been a doctor. At eighteen, she was riding the bus home from university in Mexico City when her bus collided with a trolly car. A metal handrail shot through her hip and came out the other side. After three weeks in the hospital and three months at home recuperating in a body cast, she gave up on the idea of being a doctor. Instead, she taught herself to paint.
Resilience. A year before her death, she arrived by ambulance for her first solo exhibit in Mexico City. Hobbled by her earlier accident and thirty subsequent operations, she held court from her four-poster bed. Frida embraced life despite all her pain—both physical and emotional. It was just three years after her bus accident that she asked Diego Rivera for artistic advice; he in turn courted her, visiting her weekly at her parents’ house. He was twenty years older, and his many affairs broke her heart, but she seems to have found some solace in her own affairs, with men and woman. Still, by all accounts, the couple had a deep bond and love for one another. They divorced in 1939 and remarried the following year.
One-of-a-kind Style. Frida had this, but she cultivated it. Her husband was tall and heavy. She was petite, with a stunted right foot and a limp as result of polio as a child. She chose to wear long, brightly colored Mexican folk dresses with elaborate hair accessories that were often adorned with flowers or fruit. She sported a unibrow on her pretty face and sometimes the hint of a mustache. Her sense of fashion concealed her disability, but it also empowered her. Of her 143 paintings, 55 were self-portraits that reflected her physical or emotional pain, but also her resilience and her appreciation of life. Today she inspires fashion designers as well as girls who like to dress up like Frida while viewing exhibits of her work.
“I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.” Frida Kahlo
Vincent van Gogh died before Frida was born. He lived in a different century on a different continent, but he, too, has an infatuated fan base, and it’s not just because of his distinctive paintings. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, established in 1973, reports two million visitors a year and even more to its website. His most famous painting “The Starry Night”—valued at about $100 million—hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was purchased in 1941, but midwesterners ‘discovered’ him first. In 1922, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum bought an 1887 “Self-Portrait.” The next four van Goghs were also bought by public museums in the midwest. In 1971, the singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote the song “Vincent” when he was a struggling musician, and it became one of his greatest hits. By 1990, Vincent’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” painted in 1890 shortly after he left the mental asylum, sold for $86 million. There have been at least four major feature films about Vincent’s life, beginning with Lust for Life in 1956. For the last two years, a travelling “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit has wowed millions with its fantastical light show that explores his life and work.
It’s too bad Vincent didn’t live to see any of this. He took up painting at twenty-seven, having failed at several other professions. He lived an impoverished life. He had few friends, apart from his younger brother Theo. Plagued by mental demons, he cut off one ear, spent a chunk of time in a mental asylum, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at thirty-seven, his work virtually unknown. But his legacy, thanks in large part to Theo’s widow Jo Bonger-van Gogh and an increasingly adoring public, lives on. Two thousand paintings, drawings, and sketches, plus hundreds of letters, mainly written to his brother Theo:
I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corners, I see drawings and pictures.”
Our collective admiration for Frida and Vincent shows that we have more in common than we are different, even in the U.S. where battles still rage over our divisive politics. We’re alike because we applaud one-of-a-kind talent and appreciate the hard work it takes to cultivate it. We champion individuals who work hard to overcome their disabilities; we better understand the complexity of mental illness, in part because one in five adults suffer from some form of it during their lifetime (according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness). For all these reasons, and because their paintings touch our souls in myriad ways, we give to Frida and Vincent the life we wish they could have had here on Earth.