A painting by Diego Rivera that has not been seen by the public for nearly 100 years was acquired at a Christie’s auction by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) on March 11 for little more of $4 million. Titled “La Bordadora” (“The Embroiderer”), the 1928 oil-on-canvas painting is an example of what Rivera was best known for – depicting working-class life in his signature abstract realist style.
The painting shows two women seated on the ground floor next to a large wooden frame: one sewing a floral design into a red tapestry in profile, the other watching, hand clenched and raised to mouth, facing the viewer. The youngest observer carefully absorbs the craftsmanship of the embroiderer and inherits the artistic tradition, one that has probably been passed down from generations of women. A paper box filled with balls of colored thread lies uncovered on the stretched textile. The lunar curve of the embroiderer’s long body draws the viewer’s attention to the craftsmanship she cradles, and her ensemble – a fabric hairpiece, bold shirt, long skirt and bare feet – is comfortable and unstudied. .
Rivera made this painting after visiting the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, located near Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1923, where he was impressed and influenced by indigenous cultural expressions.
“Absolutely brilliant in its construction and vibrant colors, the composition nevertheless exhibits Cubist influences, as it denotes a square arranged in an ellipse, both enclosed in a rectangle, demonstrating that Rivera never really abandoned the avant-garde. but rather acquired a social dimension and a new ideological awareness of the engagement of art in Mexico”, wrote Luis-Martín Lozano for Christie’s in an essay accompanying the auction house listing.
The sale makes “La Bordadora” the third most expensive Rivera painting ever sold at auction. Prior to Friday’s auction, it had never been shown publicly, and the record only that it existed was a black and white photograph published in the Paris newspaper Living Art in 1930.
For decades, the location and ownership of the painting was unknown. It was discovered that he was in possession of a New Orleans family collection, originally purchased in the late 1920s by James Kern Feibleman, a businessman and literature professor associated with a community of artists including Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner. These New Orleans artists and intellectuals corresponded on several occasions with Mexican artists like Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros; Feibleman’s acquisition of Rivera’s painting reflected their admiration for his work.
In a statement, the MFAH noted a relationship between “La Bordadora” and a cartoon by Rivera in the museum’s permanent collection, depicting an Aboriginal worker leaning on his knees working in concert with several others. This sketch was a precursor to a cycle of monumental murals that Rivera completed in 1928 for the Ministry of Education in Mexico City.
“The Bordadora and ministry murals herald a fundamental theme of Rivera’s life’s work, to capture the dignity of the everyday,” MFAH Director Gary Tinterow said in a statement. “Through this acquisition, we will be able to build on the foundations of our extraordinary collections of 20th-century Latin American art to tell the story of modernism from its earliest chapters.”