JUST DABBLING

Before Frida Kahlo became widely known as Frida Kahlo, she was a famous painter’s trailing spouse

In high-mobility sectors like government, academia, and the military there is a phenomenon known as the “trailing spouse”: a person who moves to a new place, often without work or connections of their own, to support a spouse’s new job.

In 1933, the Detroit News caught up with one such dutiful partner: the wife of a Mexican painter commissioned to paint his signature large-scale murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The woman passed her time painting, the reporter noted, “which may surprise people who think that Diego Rivera . . . is the only artist in the family.”

The article was accompanied by a photo of a now-familiar face: the artist Frida Kahlo.

Especially compared to Rivera’s wider fame, Kahlo was virtually unknown as an artist when reporter Florence Davies interviewed her. Kahlo’s breakthrough moment didn’t come until 1938, with her successful first solo show in New York. Davies was one of the first journalists to identify Kahlo’s “very skillful and beautiful style” and outsized personality (Rivera “does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist,” Kahlo told her).

It’s fair to say the headline—”Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”—took the up-and-coming artist a lot less seriously.

“The headline was probably written by a male and that reporter was working in a newsroom full of men,” Andie Tucher, a professor at New York’s Columbia Journalism School, told the Detroit News.

In the end, Rivera’s wife’s dabblings proved successful, artistically and commercially. Kahlo’s 1939 painting “Two Nudes in the Forest (The land itself)” sold in May for $8 million.

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