The Flower Carrier is one of Diego Rivera's brightest and most famous paintings, typically capturing the lives of the Mexican poor - a theme he returned to again and again right across his career.
Flowers are a significant part of Mexican life and also provide an abundance of colour to any artists looking for creative inspiration. Rivera selects a huge bunch with tones of purple, pink and yellow here. A green hedgerow sits behind and provides a darker background than the vibrant colours in front. We see a strong woman coming to the aid of the flower carrier who is attempting to lift this heavy basket aloft. Cargador de Flores, to give it it's original name, was completed by Diego Rivera in 1935. The basket is deliberately oversized in order to underline the message of this painting, namely the hardship experienced by the gentleman as he struggles to transport these valuable goods to market.
We can see and appreciate the beauty of these flowers, whilst this peasant must struggle in the dirt just to make a living. The artist's work in depicting the working poor would always be from their point of view, with both sympathy and also a desire to draw attention to their lives. Rivera also revisited this theme in other titles such as Nude with Calla Lilies, Vendedora de Flores and Flower Festival. He would also produce a series of murals within both Mexico and the US which would further highlight the struggles of the common man which was a theme that he never lost touch with throughout his lifetime, even as his reputation rose on the international stage.
Rivera was, it must be said, something of a contradiction. He would devote himself to socialism throughout his lifetime, whilst also forming friendships with some of the richest businessmen anywhere in the world. He understood the value of wealth, and so in forming these relationships he would also be able to get his work into some of the most prestigious galleries in the world, helping to strengthen his own reputation. There was also the potential for him to spread his political beliefs into nations that were not normally receptive to it, such as the USA, and by incorporating it into art it might attract an intrigued audience. He undestood how Communism, for example, could spread across boundaries, having become a member of the Mexican Communist Party himself. He later produced a painting which included major Russian political figures which was actually aimed at the American public.
One immediately notices as to how the figures within Rivera's paintings are kept relatively anonymous. The reason for this was that it was not about these specific people, but actually the artist was drawing attention to the wider community more generally. In this particular case the flower carrier's face is covered by a large hat whose brim protects him from the fierce sunshine. Workers such as this would have spent many hours outdoors within the Mexican countryside and so suitable clothing was a necessity. Rivera was himself a committed Socialist and so concerns about the poor would always interest him. He would join the Mexican Communist Party and never lost his connection to these people, even during his times living abroad. There is also a set of bushes across the background which provides the setting of a rural location.
An additional meaning that some have discussed about this painting is based on the likelihood that the individual struggling under the weight of these flowers is likely to be taken them away to be sold in a nearby town or city. Therefore, he is literally suffering under the weight of the capitalist system, which might be a bit of a stretch in terms of symbolism, but would entirely fit the political outlook of the artist himself. Rivera was always positive in how he depicted the common people of Mexico, with their clothing entirely unblemished by their challenging activities and no great expression of sadness or complaint from them directly. The image that he wanted to convey about the campesinos was therefore of quiet stoicism and a loyalty to their local communities.
What is the Meaning of The Flower Carrier?
The flower carrier's posture is an important element behind the meaning of this painting. He leans over under the weight of the flowers on his back and had both palms flat to the ground. The purpose of this is to symbolise visually the struggle of these people, who would face long, arduous days in the fields and streets of Mexico just to earn enough to pay for the most basic of lifestyle. Indeed, the artist purposely expands the size of the basket on his back and overflows it with flowers in order to underline this point. The worker receives help from a lady behind who rebalances the basket on his back. This is perhaps to draw attention to the strong community spirit found within these populations, and how they would help each other to overcome these difficulties. Rivera uses bright colour tones across the foreground to make the key elements stand out but also to provide a positive atmosphere to this commentary on life in Mexico.
What is the Style of this Painting?
Diego Rivera was a unique artist, who took in influences from a variety of sources. For example, he is most famous as a Mexican muralist, but also worked within Realism and Cubism at times in his career. There are strong elements of Symbolism within this particular painting in how he represents the wider population of Mexico by including anonymised or covered facial features. One might suggest that Rivera was a movement all of his own, marrying European and Mexican influences together whilst also tackling a variety of content such as individual portraits, landscapes and much more complex compositions. Rivera's human forms would often be bold in colour and outline but without overdoing the detail within these shapes, giving more of a contemporary feel that might remind some of the influence of Paul Cezanne and the earlier Impressionists. In terms of depth, many of these figures would also be somewhat flattened, as he moved away from a more Realist approach.
How was the Artwork Made?
The Flower Carrier was produced using oil and tempera on masonite. Rivera would make use of a wide variety of different techniques across his career, many of which were fairly traditional such as his fresco work which would become a dominant section of his oeuvre. Rivera also regularly produced study drawings in charcoal, chalk or pencil in order to prepare for these paintings, with figurative art being a particularly challenging genre that even the great masters would have to continually practice across their lifetime. Masonite, on which the design was painted, is an alternative to natural wood boards which is made from a combination of wood chips and resin and normally provides a cheaper alternative to the types of wood board that artists have been using for many centuries.
What is the History of this Painting?
The history of this artwork is fairly straight forward. The item was acquired for the Albert M. Bender Collection before being gifted to the SFMoMA, where it still resides today. The work was purchased in 1935, meaning it was sold off by the artist pretty much as soon as it was finished. It remains a highly valued item within the institution's collection and so is highly unlikely to be moved elsewhere anytime soon. It is listed as having been a gift of Albert Bender in the memory of Caroline Walter. Many of their own artworks from Rivera's career would come directly from generous donations and these pieces would now command extraordinary valuations were they ever to come up for sale at auction.
What other Paintings did Rivera Produce in 1935?
The artist also produced a painting by the name of Delfina and Dimas within the year of 1935. That was a touching, personal portrait of a mother and her newborn child. Most of that year was actually spent finishing up the artist's work on a large series of murals, titled The History of Mexico at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. He worked on that series from 1929-1935 and so was finishing off the whole project by this time. Those murals would domainte coverage of his career from the 1930s, along with his Detroit Industry Murals, meaning that the likes of The Flower Carrier and Delfina and Dimas were somewhat forgotten by art historians until relatively recently. The former's inclusion within the permanent collection of the SFMOMA perhaps helped it to rise in prominence over the past few decades.
What was the Original Spanish Title of this Painting?
The artist spoke several languages but would certainly have given this piece a title in Spanish at the time. He chose to name this painting as Cargador de Flores, with translates directly as Carrier of Flowers. Most western institutions, including the current owners, now use the English translated title and that is how most people now refer to the piece, because of the dominance of English-speaking academics and media within the international art scene. Much the same can be said for the work of Frida Kahlo too, although it must be remembered that Rivera was affectionate towards the west and lived in both the US and Europe at various points in his lifetime. In using Spanish names originally, there can sometimes be variants of the English translations, though The Flower Carrier is generally the accepted English title for this particular painting - see, for example, how other paintings might use the term seller, or vendor instead when discussing the same artwork.
Other Famous Paintings of Peasant Life
Several famous artists have made use of similar scenes all the way back to the Renaissance and beyond. Pieter Bruegel depicted Dutch peasants in a variety of settings just as others were more interested in becoming respected court painters right across Europe. The likes o Velazquez and Holbein would promote their careers by cosying up with the higher levels of society. Their reputations would also be lifted and a continual stream of high profile commissions would then follow for the rest of their careers. Bruegel preferred to forge his own path and ensure that his creative freedom was never compromised. In more recent centuries, such as in the Barbizon School, we have seen many address the lives of the working poor within their work. Millet is perhaps the best known for this, giving us the likes of The Gleaners, The Angelus and The Sower in his customary sombre colour schemes. We can also all remember Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh which came about prior to his relocation to the sun-filled French landscape. His earlier work in his native Netherlands was far more dark and moody in tone. There are also further examples in the powerful paintings of Gustave Courbet.
Location and Ownership of The Flower Carrier (Cargador de Flores)
Flower Carrier (Cargador de Flores) can now be found at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco, California, US. It measures a total of 121.9 x 121.3 cm, making it a virtually square canvas. Artist Rivera made use of oil, masonite plus some touches of tempera in order to complete this charming piece in the year of 1935. The artist made use of white, lilac and purple shades in order to brighten up this painting, as the rest of the composition is relatively dark in tone. The worker struggling to lift these flowers is dressed in a perfectly white attire, perhaps suggesting the artist was making use of some artistic licence here as it would be unlikely that a manual worker such as this would have been able to keep their clothes so immaculately clean. Those fortunate enough to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will also be able to enjoy a number of other significant modern artworks, including Diego and I by Frida Kahlo, Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse, Mountains by Franz Marc and Violin and Candlestick by Georges Braque.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.