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Diego Rivera, El sueño (La noche de los pobres)/Sleep (The night of the poor), 1932. Lithograph, 22 5/8 x 15 7/8 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Bequest of Rudolph and Louise Langer.

Diego Rivera

The Art

El sueño (La noche de los pobres)/Sleep (The night of the poor)

El sueño (La noche de los pobres), or Sleep (The night of the poor), is a part of a series of lithographs created by Diego Rivera that were published in New York by the Weyhe Gallery in 1932. El sueño portrays a group of Mexican campesinos, or rural peasantry, sleeping huddled together for warmth and support. Following the Mexican Revolution, representations of the peasantry were often used as a nationalist symbol to promote the ideal of social equality. In Rivera’s print, women, men, children and a dog sleep soundly. The woman in the top right corner of the work appears to cradle an infant who is wrapped in a shawl and protected from the elements. Her head rests softly on the head of the child next to her. The woman in the foreground supports another sleeping child on her lap. Two men occupy the left side of the picture plane and both sleep with hats shrouding their faces. The soft curves, delicate black-and-white tonal gradation, and the physical intimacy of the figures create a tender scene. Though El sueño is a calm, quiet depiction of people in repose, the limp bodies, hanging heads, closed eyes, and weary expressions also reflect the sorrow and the inequalities experienced by the poor during the period surrounding the Revolution. Perhaps far from home or without one at all, these people appear to be deprived of basic human comforts. Like many of Rivera’s depictions of the Mexican people, this image is tinged with both realism and optimism.

In 1931, Rivera traveled to New York City to work on a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. He created eight portable murals built on moveable plaster panels for the exhibition; these frescoes offered Americans a means to view his murals, many others of which were painted in place and therefore immobile and inaccessible to a wide public. While in New York City, he attracted the attention of Carl Zigrosser, director of the Weyhe Gallery. Zigrosser recognized the growing demand for Rivera’s work in North America and the need for a medium that would allow it to be more easily circulated. He encouraged Rivera to create lithographic prints with the goal of making his work more available to collectors.

Bolstered by Zigrosser’s suggestion, Rivera created El sueño and nine additional lithographs that were published by the Weyhe Gallery. A black-and-white print created with a lithographic crayon, El sueño is a detail from a 1928 fresco that Rivera painted in a courtyard in Mexico City’s Secretaría de Educacion Pública (Ministry of Education). Zigrosser publicized the prints by writing that they “give an idea…of the actual frescoes themselves, both in form and content, and in monumental design.” The original fresco, La noche de los pobres (The night of the poor), complements an adjacent fresco titled La noche de los ricos (The night of the rich). Together, the two murals form a diptych of contrasting social classes. Rivera’s social commentary criticizes the rich by depicting a scene of capitalist opulence alongside a scene of the disenfranchised poor.

The Artist

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in Guanajuato, the capital of the state of Guanajuato in North-Central Mexico. Rivera exhibited a fondness for drawing at a young age and as a boy he cultivated his artistic skills by studying at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. During this time, the Academy’s training followed traditional European-based models. Though Rivera learned techniques in landscape painting and classical sculpture, teachers such as the artists Felix Parra and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) also exposed him to the notion that the art of Mexico should reflect the country’s rich pre-Colombian indigenous culture.

Rivera was able to visit Europe in 1907 through a grant and through the sale of his own work. In Europe, he spent time in Madrid, Paris, and other major European cities. He absorbed a variety of influences from old masters to then-contemporary trends in Cubism and Post-Impressionism. During this period, he formed relationships with key figures in avant-garde and modernist circles. Beginning in 1910, Mexico experienced a violent revolution and civil war that sought to achieve social and racial equality for the landless indigenous working class. In 1920, José Vasconcelos, the newly-appointed Mexican Minister of Education, presented Rivera with a grant to fund a seventeen-month stay in Italy where he studied Etruscan, Byzantine, and Renaissance art. His exposure to Italian frescoes would prove to be influential to his later contribution to Mexico’s own mural tradition.

In 1921, Rivera returned to Mexico for the first time since his departure in 1907. The post-revolutionary Mexican government was enacting a series of reforms to promote and solidify its nationalist and socialist ideals, and Vasconcelos recognized the power of murals for this purpose. He developed a government-sponsored public art program that commissioned artists to paint murals in government buildings throughout Mexico. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco were among the most prominent of these artists and, together, became known as Los tres grandes (The Three Great Ones) for their contributions to Mexican art during this period. The public mural program promoted what was known as Mexican Modernism; centered in Mexico City during the 1920s and 1930s, artists and intellectuals contributed to this dynamic period of artistic achievement through writing, painting, drawing, and photography. Though much of Rivera’s previous artwork reflected his European training, the murals he created upon his return to Mexico were a unique synthesis of classical European style, elements of traditional Mexican art such as vivid colors and simplified figures, and Mexican subject matter. Of this change, Rivera said, “My style was born like a child, in a moment, with the difference that this birth took place at the end of a painful, 35-year gestation.”

Rivera married Frida Kahlo in 1929; the two shared each other’s interest in art and politics. Rivera’s participation in the mural program led to many important commissions in Mexico and the United States throughout his career. In addition to being a muralist, Rivera was also a talented printmaker, creating a number of lithographs in the early 1930s. Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo are often considered Mexico’s most renowned artists.

Key Ideas

  • Poignant representations of Mexico’s disenfranchised poor
  • Mexico’s rural peasantry as a nationalist symbol of social equality
  • Lithographic prints as surrogates for stationary murals
  • Social value of art

Discussion Questions

  1. The title of the work by Diego Rivera, Sleep (The night of the poor), tells the viewer that the group of people depicted are impoverished. What visual details might suggest their monetary and social status? Describe them.
  2. In the period following the Mexican Revolution, images of the peasantry were used by artists to promote social equality in a society where many of Mexico’s people were poor and landless. El sueño (La noche de los pobres) portrays a group of peasant men, women, and children. Do you think that this print promotes this cause? Why or why not?
  3. El sueño is part of a series of lithographs created by Diego Rivera in 1932 while he was working in New York. It is a detail from a larger mural entitled La noche de los pobres (The night of the poor), painted by Rivera in Mexico at the Ministry of Education in 1928. Considering that the lithograph was created for an audience outside of Mexico, why might he have chosen to recreate this mural as a print? Keep in mind that throughout time, artists have created prints for a variety of reasons; some advantages include and their ability to be easily distributed to a wide audience and the low cost of producing many prints of the same image.
  4. Diego Rivera’s art is often described as being more optimistic than the art of his contemporaries, such as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. What about El sueño conveys a sense of optimism? What other qualities does the work convey?