Think You Know Frida Kahlo? Think Again. Here Are the Mexican Painter’s Most Under-the-Radar Artworks—Ranked
Kahlo painted a lot more than just herself.
We equate Frida Kahlo’s work with Frida Kahlo’s face. The 20th-century Mexican painter, who often documented her own features when bedridden due to poor health, painted around 60 self-portraits—constituting more than a third of her total artistic output. In the more than 60 years since her death, Kahlo’s likeness has taken on a mythical quality, and images of her have flourished everywhere: on make-up products, t-shirts, Vans sneakers, socks, tote bags, Barbie dolls, paper dolls, and pillows.
The artist wasn’t a complete narcissist, though. She did paint other people, from family to friends to patrons. We just don’t generally see those images plastered on mugs and iPhone cases. Perhaps the portraits Kahlo painted of people in her circle don’t attract the same kind of attention because so much of the interest in Kahlo’s art hinges on Kahlo herself—the way she dressed, the way she lived. Several of the works in question also remain in private hands, limiting their public exposure. Either way, they, too, deserve a look.
To honor the fact that Frida Kahlo saw well beyond her own nose, we’ve assembled five of her most under-the-radar portraits (determined by how visible they’ve been to the public since they were painted, and whether they’ve appeared in museum exhibitions). They’re ranked below, in ascending order of obscurity.
5. Portrait of Leo Eloesser (1931)
For decades, this portrait of one of Kahlo’s doctors and confidantes, Leo Eloesser, was invisible in plain sight. It hung high in the lobby of San Francisco General Hospital, but after construction of a new building in 2017, the early oil-on-Masonite work was reinstalled at eye level near the guard station.
The portrait belonged to Eloesser himself, a Spanish-speaking doctor with socialist leanings who treated a 24-year-old Kahlo on her first trip to the United States, in 1930. In the painting, he stands near a model ship called “Los Tres Amigos”—a wink to the budding friendship between the artist, Eloesser, and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. After meeting Eloesser in San Francisco, Kahlo consulted him about her medical treatment for the rest of her life. Portrait of Leo Eloesser has been included in a few museum shows (mostly during the recent hiatus when the new San Franciscan hospital was being built), but for the most part, the doctor has kept a watchful painted eye over his former place of employment since 1968.
4. Portrait of Natasha Gelman (1943)
When Diego Rivera painted a portrait of socialite Natasha Gelman, she was seductively slouched on a velvet chaise and clad in a barely-there white dress that mirrored the calla lilies framing her curves. But when Kahlo depicted her, she was bundled up in a fur coat. The Czechoslovakian émigrée to Mexico is precisely done up, with red lips, lined eyebrows, and coiffed curls (a European mirror image of Kahlo’s usual look).
Natasha and her filmmaker husband, Jacques, starting building their substantial Mexican art collection in 1941, but it was not visible to the public for many years. When Natasha died in 1998, the collection began touring the world—a selection including this portrait is now on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
3. Window Display on a Detroit Street (1932)
Not long after Kahlo completed this little-known painting during her stint in Detroit, she created a far more famous painting, Henry Ford Hospital (1932), which viscerally illustrates the way she spent her 1932 Fourth of July: suffering the physical and emotional agonies of a miscarriage that left her hospitalized for 13 days. Kahlo had consulted with Dr. Eloesser about whether or not her body could carry a child to term; his answer is unknown, but she kept the pregnancy.
Just before her miscarriage, when she was still optimistically pregnant, Kahlo painted this lesser-known still life that contained a tiny portrait of George Washington, part of a patriotic window display on an anonymous Detroit street. The back of the store is bare, still being set up with a ladder and some cans of paint. In the meantime, the stately first US president looks out at the window shopper, his framed likeness decorated with a festive garland that almost looks like it could be from the artist’s native Mexico.
This work is in a private collection, and seldom exhibited.
2. Portrait of Marucha Lavin (1942)
This portrait painted on a custom copper medallion depicts Marucha Lavin, wife of engineer José Domingo Lavin, who also commissioned Kahlo to paint a personal interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s book, Moses and Monotheism (1939). The nearly life-sized likeness is haloed by bright banana leaves. Lavin wears a floral embroidered blouse that looks like it might belong in the Kahlo’s own well-documented wardrobe.
The portrait has remained in the Lavin family, and has barely been exhibited. It was first shown in a 1943 group show at the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City, and most recently at a 2014 Kahlo solo exhibition at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale (but rarely seen in between).
1. Portrait of a Lady in White (1929)
This early and unfinished Frida Kahlo portrait is so uncharted that art historians are still debating whether this elegantly white-gloved lady is an ex-lover of the artist, a friend of a friend, or Kahlo’s former high school classmate, Elena Boder. The blank mauve banner above the sitter’s head would have provided some helpful details, had the painting been completed.
Kahlo gifted the canvas to her photographer friend, Lola Álvarez Bravo. It then changed hands and ended up in a private collection in Texas, before making its way to the collection of Dr. Helga Prignitz-Poda—a Kahlo expert who loaned the work to Stanford University. The artwork sold at Christie’s Latin American sale last month for over $5.8 million (the second-highest price the artist has ever reached at auction), but the buyer’s identity hasn’t been publicized and it may be a while before this lady in white is again posing for the public.
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