Cubism was a popular innovation in the early 20th century that attracted many contemporary artists to try out its unique challenges. Most would then move on to other styles but the likes of Picasso, and particularly Braque and Gris, would devote quite a number of years to exploring this alternative art form. The ambition was to challenge the accepted principles of art, particularly on things like perspective, and in doing so a new reality could be delivered onto the canvas. Rivera himself had several Picasso Cubist work hanging on his wall and was very fond of his talented colleague, and so eventually set about creating some of his own work within this movement, one of which was titled Sailor at Breakfast. Many of the elements of this painting can be directly connected to the style of Cubism used by Picasso, as within this umbrella movement that would be quite a lot of variation over time.
Diego Rivera combines portraiture with still life within this painting. We see initially the rectangular head of the sailor with a memorable curved moustache. Most of his features are completed with a simple use of lines in an entirely contemporary manner. We then see his sailor's hat which sits at the top of the composition, relatively by itself and is therefore given a great prominence by the artist. Other than the striped shirt found further down, the hat is important for identifying the role of this subject. We then look down the painting towards the bottom and spot all manner of different elements regarding his breakfast table. Two grilled fish lie on a round plate which is partially cropped out of the piece. There is also a mug of drink and parts of the table's surface also show through. Notice how some items are seen top-down, whilst others are directly opposing us, which underlines how Cubism played with the rules of perspective and angles.
Cubist specialists would often make use of understated tones for their work and we find the same here, even though Rivera himself is so famous for the bright palettes that he used elsewhere in his career. Different greys and blues with browns cover the various fragments of this painting, where the artist essentially creates a jigsaw of the original picture and moves items around into a new arrangement. Across the back we then discover a patterned wall which continues the busy nature of this painting, with Sailor at Breakfast having no neutral areas at all. Cubism was often about detail and a busy approach, and it would become a style which would polarise opinion, both then and now today as well.