Diego Rivera is rightly regarded as one of the most important Mexican painters in history, but who else joins the list of the most famous ten of all time?
Mexican Muralism dominates the list, contributing three artists just from that single movement, but there is also an excellent breadth of styles included in our selection below. Several themes run consistently across the different oeuvres, such as bright colour tones inspired by Mexican culture, as well as a strong connection to socialist values that most of these contributors shared. In terms of fame, we are considering things from a western point of view, and so those who worked abroad would instantly be more likely to appear here. It would be much harder to Mexican artists who remained within the country for their entire life to have achieved as much international fame, and so would probably fall short of the selection below. Fame is also not necessarily a direct reflection of an artist's quality or technical brilliance, and can sometimes be more about self-promotion and personality than anything else.
The art of Mexico dates back far beyond the formation of the country in 1810 and includes many different civilisations. Colonialisation had brought about new influences from Europe which added an extra dimension to what had already occurred, but the prehispanic Mesoamerican era has a wealth of rich culture that is sometimes overlooked by western art historians. The independance of Mexico then brought about another phase in its cultural development, leading to the significant names who arrived in the 20th century. This article focuses on specific artists, and so those from centuries before are not included because we are unaware of the specific creator of each item but this is in no way a suggestion that the more recent Mexican art is necessarily better, just more famous.
The Spanish influence during its colonialist rule brought about a strong focus on religious art, similar to how the Renaissance in Italy had been dominated by much the same topics in the 15th century. Indigenous styles then started to re-appear, often being merged with European ideas once the country started to regain its own cultural independence. Many of the movements which came along in the 20th century were therefore a combination of the two, bringing about unique styles of art that was popular on the international stage and also became palatable to followers from different backgrounds. Rivera's paintings are good examples of this, with the fusion of Mexican peasantry being combined with technical ideas that were fostered during his time living in Europe. His wife, Frida Kahlo, was also inspired by European Surrealism, though incorporated elements of her own Mexican culture into her own portraiture.
Dr Atl starred in the early to mid 20th century as a contemporary painter and writer. Much of his visual work focused on the landscape art genre and he was also passionate about supporting to indigenous population of Mexico, with patriotic art which celebrated the history and culture of the country from before the colonial era. Additionally, the term Atl that he used as his nickname dervied from the Aztec word for water, which was another sign of his rejection of the influence of Spanish colonial rule, even though he shared its heritage himself. His artistic style was actually fairly contemporary and took influence from European art, such as Expressionism, though the content of scenes around Mexico was all about promoting the beauty of his homeland. Gerardo Murillo Cornado was also a highly skilled draughtsman, and his drawings provided the base for much of his success.
Remedios Varo Uranga was a Spanish Surrealist artist born in the very early 20th century. She would later live for many years in Mexico and became a passionate supporter of the country. Varo found it difficult to promote her surrealist style at a time when the Mexican Muralists were so dominant within this country but she still managed to overcome this barrier eventually, plus the additional challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. She befriended all of the most famous Mexican artists around at that time and also came across a number of Europeans who, like herself, had chosen to live an alternative lifestyle within this exciting country. As much as she loved Mexico, her style was highly influenced by her European background and she had a unique style of Surrealism which made her best work immediately identifiable as her own.
Leonora Carrington was born in Northern England in the early 20th century but moved to Mexico in the 1940s. She adored the country and lived and worked here for most of the rest of her career. Carrington would become a major Surrealist artist, directly influenced by a number of European artists who she had met and spent time with in her younger years. Whilst painting was her main medium, she also produced a number of large sculptures which can still be found around Mexico today. She was additionally a strong supporter of women's rights and did much to improve the outlook for Mexican women as part of her role within the women's liberation movement. She would ultimately play an important role in contriburing to the Surrealist movement but from a female perspective and was unabashed in her desire to do so.
Gabriel Orozco is an innovative artist who has attempted to forge a new path within Mexican art, using inspiration gleaned from an unusual lifestyle. He has also thus far taken in a good variety of mediums, including drawing, photography, sculpture and installation. The artist often spoke about the importance of being immersed in a variety of cultures, just as many of the other famous artists in this list would benefit from. Today we best now the artist as an installation artist and he continues to work effectively across a number of countries, with a firm base in all of Mexico, USA and France. He is the most recent of all artists featured in this list and has many decades of work left to accomplish in the coming years.
José Guadalupe Posada
José Guadalupe Posada is perhaps the most famous Mexican illustrator of all time. His career lasted until the early 20th century and he was heavily involved in political satire which, in turn, would inspire many Latin American cartoonists who followed on in the decades after. Much of his work is instantly recognisable as he created something of a signature brand, using several items such as skulls, calaveras, and bones in a form of iconographic language. These symbols would be used to make political statements about life in Mexico in a manner which had not been seen in the country before. Posada would produce his designs in the form of lithographs and would later spend time as a teacher of this art form. Some of his satire would prove controversial and bring him into conflict with local politicians and government officials, though it proved impossible to disuade him from expressing these opinions.
Rufino Tamayo was an abstract artist from the mid 20th century who took elements of Surrealism and Modernism into his unique style. Despite those influences, Tamayo was respected for his use of Mexican culture and fused many different periods together, including pre-Columbian, indigenous and colonial to produce some impactful paintings and sculptures. He naturally became connected to the Mexican Muralists but different in many aspects artistically and was also not as interested in political campaigning. Tamayo became aware of how western society did not tend to treat Mexican art fairly, but contributions from the great names in this list of famous Mexican artists would play a major role in altering that perception in order to transition to the fairer situation that we have today.
David Alfaro Siqueiros
David Alfaro Siqueiros was a successful member of the Mexican Muralist movement but also became heavily involved in far left politics. Whilst many Mexicans shared his socialist values, including most of the artists with whom be collaborated, none of them would become quite as involved in the Communist cause as him. Most of his murals were commissioned for architecture around his native Mexico and his style can be considered particularly dramatic and full of emotion. He was ironically awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1966, despite having led efforts to assassinate Leon Trotsky three decades earlier. Siqueiros was a confrontational character who took on the leading powers in Mexico which eventually led to him being imprisoned, and he was also eventually banned from entering the US for his extreme political views and outspoken nature which was impossible to tame.
José Clemente Orozco
José Clemente Orozco was a key member of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, a movement which became a key part of wider Mexican art history. His depictions would be somewhat darker than from other members of the group, regularly focusing on the suffering of the poor, where as others tackled the same subject in a more positive manner. He would eventually receive commissions for impactful mural work right across Mexico and also a good number in the US too, most of which still remain in the same locations today. His paintings feature complex arrangements of figurative art as well as bold colour schemes which combined influences from traditional art but with an updated, comtemporary finish. His career was slightly overshadowed by another member of the group, Diego Rivera, but a museum has been set up in his name in Guadalajara and western institutions have started to give his work greater prominence in recent years.
The master of murals, as we have outlined through this website, makes it all the way to number two. His large scale frescoes have helped to protect, perhaps even strengthen his fame in recent decades as new generations continue to come across his work within various high profile institutions. We know this artist best for his connection to the Mexican poor, whom he adored and also worked hard to draw attention to across his career. Despite that, he was also a socialite and extrovert and counted some of the most successful businessmen within his circle of friends. They would help him to acquire some of these impressive commissions and it seemed Rivera was willing to be pragmatic in order to best serve his socialist ambitions.
The feminist icon and master of self portraiture, Frida Kahlo, deservedly takes the number one spot as the most famous Mexican artist of all time. Despite the turbulent life that she led, including many health problems, she was able to construct a strong body of work which remains highly regarded on the international stage. She managed to harness the difficulties that she faced, including a broken back, to inspire many bright artworks that belied her own situation. She was a passionate Socialist, just as with husband Diego, but normally focused on portraiture, only sometimes dipping into the world of politics within her paintings. Like Rivera, she also demonstrated influence from European art, with Surrealism being used most prominently there during the early to mid 20th century.