Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits by Katie Peters

photo, Kahlo "I painted my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration." (1)

Frida Kahlo is as well known for her interesting life as she is for her art. She had a style of painting that expressed the pain that she otherwise hid from the world. Many events in her life produced dark, violent and morbid themes in her art. Biographer Raquel Tibol comments, "in [her] work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue" (3). Although her feelings and pieces of herself can be found in most of her paintings, her series of self-portraits provides the most intimate, direct glimpse into her world.

"My painting carries with it the message of pain ... painting completed my life... I believe that work is the best thing." (2)

In order to better understand the themes in her paintings, certain events and relationships in her life must be understood. Frida had an extremely eventful and interesting life, which could be (and has been) discussed for hundreds of pages. In the interest of concentrating on some of her works, only the most crucial influences on her work are explored below.

Frida was born on July 6, 1907 although she provides the date as July 7, 1910. Frida had a normal childhood except for one significant physical trauma. In 1925, as she was planning to enter medical school, she was in a serious accident involving a streetcar and a bus. She suffered many injuries including broken vertebrae, legs, arms and an abdominal injury. The latter occurred when an iron rail impaled her. This accident led to several months of hospitalization and immobilization in a plaster corset. It was during her hospitalization and the bed-rest that followed when Frida began to explore painting, simply because she was bored. Although she miraculously recovered from this accident, the injuries would cause chronic pain in her back and right leg. (3) She would endure more than 30 operations as a result, including the amputation of a leg due to gangrene later in her life. Her intense physical pain and frequent depression repeatedly led her to drugs, painkillers, and alcohol. (4)

Frida proclaimed her desire to bear a child with painter Diego Rivera before she ever met him in 1922. They met while she was attending the National Preparatory School and he had been commissioned to paint a mural there. After she began painting, she came to ask Diego to critique her work. This began their involvement, which culminated in their marriage in August of 1929. During their marriage, Frida traveled with Diego wherever he was commissioned to paint, including the United States; he was much more famous than she at the time. (1) They were an odd match, he much larger (nearly three times her size), older (twice her age) and more established than she. Both Frida and Diego had multiple affairs during their marriage. According to Frida:

"Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world. I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade." (2)
photo; Kahlo and Rivera


They were divorced for one year in 1940 and remarried in the same year. (1) Frida joked, "I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down...The other accident is Diego." (2)

It was not until the depression following her first miscarriage in 1932 when the dark, morbid themes became prevalent in her works. It was then that she began painting on metal in the retablo style. The taboo of the themes of miscarriage and abortion did not stop her from representing these events in her paintings. The themes were prevalent in her life; she suffered from multiple miscarriages, had an abortion, and never had children. Diego and Frida were involved in political and social causes in Mexico, including communism and Mexicanidad (a movement for traditional Mexicanism), and were friends with Leon Trotsky. (1) These themes are found in her art as well. It seems that none of Frida’s works are devoid of some aspect of Frida herself; whether it is her beliefs, her pain, or her loved ones, each one contains a piece of Frida.

"I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you." (2)

Frida began painting without benefit of training (she had studied art at the National Preparatory School, but never painting) or exposure to the current trend of surrealism. She stated, "I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was". (2) Her influences came from within herself, from her medical library, and a contemporary, Henri Rousseau. She references Rousseau in the "refined details of plants and trees and flowers recurring in her backgrounds". Breton convinced Frida to travel to Paris for an exhibition (one of only two in her lifetime). She mostly despised being in France and being classified as a surrealist. However, while she was there she became friends with artists Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso, who developed a great appreciation for her talent. It was also during this visit that the Louvre purchased one of her paintings. (1) Since then, many collectors and museums have snatched up Frida’s paintings and they currently fetch millions of dollars each. (4)

Frida began painting her self-portraits the instant she began painting. As she lay in the hospital bed, she painted with an adapted easel and used a mirror to paint herself. As she stated, "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best." (4) What is the appeal of these portraits? Perhaps it is the chance to catch a glimpse inside this complicated person. It is hard to describe one thing that is responsible for the popularity and intrigue of her paintings. It is easier shown than explained. Therefore, the following is a chronological presentation of a selection of Frida’s self-portraits. Each is interpreted in the context of events in her life that coincide with the time of the painting.

Self-Portrait, 1926

Self-Portrait, 1929
Frida’s first self-portrait was made for her first love (they were engaged but never married), Alejandro Gomez Arias. She created it as a sort of "love offering". It shows her hand extended as if waiting for someone to hold it. She shows herself in a very feminine, sensual way that is not seen in many of her later paintings. She also shows herself wearing Renaissance-style clothing, another feature that distinguishes this work from later works. In her second Self-Portrait, after the break up with Alejandro and during her infatuation with Diego, Frida shows the depiction of herself that is more common in her later paintings. In this one, she is in traditional Mexican attire. The second portrait is less romantic and more intense than the first. She is more serious but still youthful as shown in her rosy cheeks. (5) In both portraits, Frida shows herself in a realistic fashion, not hiding and even accentuating her facial hair (eyebrows and upper lip). She would continue this style in her later paintings with her so-called ‘uni-brow’ becoming a trademark.


Frida and Diego Rivera (1931)

This portrait serves to commemorate Frida and Diego’s marriage. It is illustrative of her portrait style and lacks any gory, morbid details. The presentation reveals how Frida admired Diego by showing her head and hands inclined towards him. His head and hands are turned away from her however, perhaps indicating how she knew she could not "possess" him. She shows him as a painter, holding his supplies and depicts herself more as the traditional adoring wife. The writing on the ribbon states:

"Here you see us, Me Frida Kahlo, with my beloved husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in the beautiful city of San Francisco California for our friend Mr. Albert Bender, and it was in the month of April in the year 1931". (5)

Henry Ford Hospital (1932)

This more gripping painting illustrates Frida’s first miscarriage. This painting is the first in which she shows a bloody scene, but it is certainly not the last. It is also her first work on sheet metal. It represents a turning point in her life and in her work in which she established her originality and separated herself from her contemporaries.

In the painting, Frida lies on a bloody bed with ribbons representing umbilical cords attaching several objects to her body. The objects illustrated include: "a snail, an orchid, a decorated pottery vase, a fanciful bit of machinery to remind her of Diego, a grotesque little fetus and an anatomical fragment". The miscarriage occurred in Detroit whose factories are shown in the background of the painting. (6) The fetus is depicted the closest to her body and is shown as the boy she had hoped for. The orchid was given to her by Diego while she was in the hospital. Frida said that the snail represented the slowness of the miscarriage. Her body is shown realistically and not idealized, with a large stomach still protruding from the pregnancy. This painting very much shows her disappointment, loneliness and the beginnings of depression. It sets the tone for the remainder of her works, in which she continues the realistic introspective depictions of herself. (5)

Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932)

Frida clearly illustrates her longing to leave the industrial United States and return to her natural, traditional Mexico in this painting, which was also created while in Detroit with Diego. She juxtaposes the factories and machinery on the U.S. side with the plants and traditional statues on the Mexico side. This juxtaposition continues when she displays both the sun and moon in the Mexican sky, while she depicts the U.S. flag in a cloud of smoke in the U.S. sky. She balances the firmly rooted plants on the Mexico side with several machines that have cords acting as their roots on the U.S. side. She cleverly weaves on of the cords and turns it into the root of a plant. She depicts herself traditionally and holding a cigarette in one hand, and a Mexican flag in the other. She has shown her head facing towards Mexico, indicating her desire to return. Here again she has depicted many elements that reveal portions of her psyche. Much like in Henry Ford Hospital she depicts many objects that at first seem out of place and unrelated, but when connected, tell a story that provides more detail about herself and events in her life. (5)

The Two Fridas (1939)

Frida painted a dual portrait of herself during her short-lived divorce from Diego. The portrait on the right is to represent the "Frida Diego loved" while the portrait on the left is the "woman whom Diego no longer loves". In both figures, the heart is exposed, showing her vulnerability, but the Frida on the left has a broken heart. The right hand portrait is holding a miniature of Diego from which her artery flows, indicating that she derived her life from him. The arteries connect to the left hand Frida where it is ruptured and bleeding onto her dress. Cleverly, several of the flowers on the bottom of the white dress are transformed into bloodstains. She presents a stormy background to set the melancholy mood of the painting. (6) Loneliness and abandonment are shown by the joined hands of the two Frida’s. She is comforting herself, surrounded by nothing else, alone in the painting and in life. This painting is particularly gripping, not for the blood, but for the emotion that can be felt while looking at it. (5)


Thinking About Death

Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser and Daughters

Self-Portrait (1940)
and Thinking About Death (1943)

These are two portraits that are illustrative of the style with which Frida painted her many bust length self-portraits. Self-Portrait represents Frida in a Christian light as she wears "Christ’s crown of thorns as a necklace". The thorns draw blood as if she presents herself as a martyr. The interesting contradiction is that Frida had rejected religion. In the painting, a hand holds a ribbon that states "I painted my portrait in the year 1940 for Dr. Eloesser, my doctor and my best friend. With all love, Frida Kahlo". Thinking About Death shows a similar style as the previous work. However here, she shows a scene with a skull and crossbones in her forehead. She used this technique of painting a separate image on her head in several other paintings. In both paintings, she is surrounded by vegetation, also common in her self-portraits. In some, she even painted herself with animals including her pet monkeys. She also wears a serious, somber expression on her face and again, traditional Mexican clothing. Even in these portraits with little detail other than herself, subtle elements still provide a glimpse into her persona. (5).


The Broken Column (1944)

Frida clearly illustrates her physical suffering in this painting. At the time, she had undergone further surgery and was again confined in a corset apparatus, which her figure is wearing in the painting. She shows the corset as holding together her ruptured body, yet at the same time it feels confining. The nails penetrating her body signify severe pain. The column representing her spine is cracked and injured as well. She is again shown alone against barren landscape giving the feeling of emptiness and despair. Despite all the gory details, her body is represented delicately, perhaps showing her vulnerability. Although she shows tears in her eyes, she bravely faces the viewer, strongly enduring her pain. The painting thus represents many aspects of her emotional and physical state. She is in pain and vulnerable yet she is strong and perseveres. It is a powerful and intimate portrait that expresses much of her inner world to the audience. (5)


Tree of Hope (1946)

In this painting, Frida again shows herself twice. The figure on the table is still anesthetized, recovering from an operation, which is shown by the open wounds on her back. Frida had just undergone surgery to fuse some of her vertebrae to attempt to relieve some of her excruciating pain. The other figure is sitting guard, showing her hope and will to live, in a Tehauna costume that is often shown in her paintings. She holds a corset brace and also wears one as can be seen by the protrusions from her dress. The flag in her hand reads "Tree of Hope, keep firm." This was a phrase in a song Frida would sing and a phrase that she often repeated as it became an inspiration and a motto for her. The barren landscape is filled with ravines and cracks that resemble her surgical wounds. She contrasts the two figures by situating one under the sun-lit sky and the other under the night sky. A letter Frida wrote indicates that in the painting there was once "a skeleton (or death) that flees terrified in the face of my will to live"; it was apparently painted out. This painting continues the theme of her physical pain and her emotional strength. (5)

Frida died on July 13, 1954. Some suspect suicide, others blame her constantly deteriorating health. Either way, even in her death it seems that Frida made a statement. According to many witness accounts of her cremation: "at the moment when Frida entered the furnace, the intense heat made her sit up, and her blazing hair stood out from her face in an aureole […] when the flames ignited her hair, her face appeared as if smiling in the center of a large sunflower". (5)

The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo are a realistic representation of her appearance combined with a symbolic representation of her spirit. She does not idealize or modify any elements of her figure; instead she confidently presents herself as she is. The juxtaposition of objects and emotions in her works paint a more complete picture of how Frida felt on the inside. She reveals all aspects of herself, physically and emotionally, in her paintings. Her upfront style combined with the story her paintings tell and feelings they emit are ingenious. The timelessness of the themes of her work will continue to raise her popularity and the well-deserved appreciation for her work. However, she was such a complex person that, even all her paintings and biographical history could not possibly paint the full portrait of Frida Kahlo.



  1. Malka Drucker, Frida Kahlo (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), pp. 128370140
  2. Kimberley Masters, "The Quotes of Frida Kahlo," The World of Frida Kahlo, 1996, <> (28 September 2002).
  3. Raquel Tibol, Frida Kahlo: An Open Life (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), pp. 13421.
  4. Stephanie Mencimer, "The trouble with Frida Kahlo: uncomfortable truths about this season’s hottest female artist," Washington Monthly, June 2002, 26.
  5. Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), pp. 329738975081.
  6. MacKinley Helm, Modern Mexican Painters (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp.194370274

Back to Students 2002 | Back Home | Next