Frida Kahlo’s life has become as iconic as her work, in great measure because she was her own most popular subject self-portrayed in about one-third of her entire production. Her projects were intensely personal and political, often reflecting her tempestuous personal life, heavily marked by her chronic illness and by the cultural Mexican renaissance in which she played an active role.
After the accident, which would limit her mobility and be the main reason for great physical pain until her death, Frida Kahlo started painting as a distraction, encouraged by her father. Her self-portrait in velvet dress was the first she produced, at the age of 19, and was meant as a present to her lover Alejandro Gómez Arias to win back his affection when he ended their relationship. On the back of the painting, she inscribed a dedication “Heute ist immer noch” (in German, today still goes on).
The portrait is an interpretation of one of Alejandro’s favorite artworks, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, as she references the goddess’ hand gesture and the sea as the origin of life. The stylistic influences of this and other Renaissance masters such as Parmigianino are evident in the sculpted appearance of her face, her aristocratic pose, and her elongated figure, reminiscent as well of Modigliani.
This portrait has been referred to as being amongst the most important artworks in the history of Mexican art, as it reveals a facet of the artist’s oeuvre not very well-known. Because she identified strongly with Mexican popular and folk art, she often depicted herself posing with animals or wearing elaborated Tehuana costumes. In this painting, however, we find a more intimate scene. Although loaded with symbolism, as she represents the turmoil of her life in the form of an agitated sea, the composition is rather austere compared to her later raw, more narrative, and complex artworks.
Her style has proven hard to categorize. Her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, considered her a realist painter, while André Breton labeled her work as Surrealist, and it has been widely referred to as naif. However, Frida preferred to avoid these labels, declaring she painted her own reality: “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration”.