Diego Rivera

Still Life

1916

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Original title
Nature morte
Medium
Oil paint on wood
Dimensions
Support: 600 x 400 mm
frame: 755 x 555 x 73 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1959
Reference
T00317

Summary

Still Life is a framed oil painting on a wooden panel. Traditional perspective is transformed in this colourful abstract composition by the use of open, angular facets. The background of the painting is comprised of dark brown dots on a lighter brown surface. On this surface, which represents a table top, are abstracted objects: a flask, a wine glass, a soda syphon and a container of Charter Oak Milk. These are represented as flat shapes in varying tones of green, red, yellow and brown, with some white highlights. The artist has included his own signature and the date of the painting (‘DR/anno 16’) on the milk label.

This work was painted in 1916 by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. He had moved from Mexico to Europe in 1907 and from 1913 to 1917 embraced Paris’s flourishing cubist movement. Still Life dates from this period, during which he was under contract with the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne. Rivera was very productive at this point in his career, a fact to which the gallery’s director Léonce Rosenberg attested in 1936: ‘Monsieur Rivera did about five major pictures a month for me, not counting sketches, pastels, watercolours, etc. He was always one of my most prolific painters’ (Rosenberg quoted in Alley 1981, p.634). Unusually for Rivera, Still Life is painted on panel. Rivera only painted one other panel between 1916 and 1917, preferring to work on canvas in order to use the weave of the fabric to create a textured surface. Painting onto panel required more manipulation of the paint layer to compensate for the smoothness of the surface. This panel is also unusual because it previously had another painting on the verso showing a man playing the clarinet. The panel was separated into two paintings in 1958, the year before Tate acquired the work from London’s Obelisk Gallery. Still Life was the second work by Rivera to enter the Tate collection, the first being the portrait Mrs Helen Wills Moody 1930 (Tate T00200), which was acquired in 1958.

Rivera deserted cubism and in turn abandoned Europe in 1921 to return to his native Mexico. He began creating realist works, including the large-scale figurative murals for which he is best known. This later phase of his career is represented in the Tate collection by Mrs Helen Wills Moody. Despite the formal divergence, Rivera’s cubist practice can be traced in his later works, as the curator Sylvia Navarrete observed: ‘The geometric rigour which he explored during this period provided him with a discipline for pictorial construction, the uncontestable effects of which would be internalized in the production of his murals’ (Navarrete 2009, p.39). Rivera also recognised this legacy of cubism in his own work: when painting his first set of murals in Mexico in 1923–4 he stated:

The cubist painter pre-creates his subject, instead of merely copying it, and it is this which links Cubism with the classical tradition. For this reason, too, the Cubist painters who are evolving styles which apparently have departed from the principles of their earlier work are said to have abandoned Cubism, when as a matter of fact they are following the natural evolution of those principles into the final plastic stage.
(Quoted in Navarrete 2009, p.137.)

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.634–5.
Gerry Souter, Diego Rivera: His Art and His Passions, New York 2007.
Sylvia Navarrete (ed.), Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits 1913–1917, exhibition catalogue, Meadows Museum, Dallas 2009.

Phoebe James
May 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

Rivera was a Mexican painter, noted especially for his large mural paintings made from the 1920s onward. He lived in Paris most of the previous decade and painted in a cubist style between 1913 and 1917. The objects here include a flask, a wine glass, a soda syphon and a tin or container of Charter Oak Milk on a table. The artist has included his own signature and the date of the painting (‘DR/anno 16’) on the milk label.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

Diego Rivera 1886-1957

T00317 Nature Morte (Still Life) 1916

Inscribed 'DR | ANNO 16' centre l.
Oil on plywood, 23 5/8 x 15 3/4 (60 x 40)
Purchased from the Obelisk Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1959
Prov: With Pierre Granville, Paris (purchased at an anonymous sale at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1952); through Obelisk Gallery, London; Richard Dembeck, London; with Obelisk Gallery, London
Exh: Léger and Purist Paris, Tate Gallery, November 1970-January 1971 (123, repr.), wrongly dated 1917-18

One of Rivera's Cubist pictures painted while he was living in Paris. The inscription 'DR | ANNO 16' on the painted Charter Oak Milk label seems to be his way of signing and dating this work, which fits quite convincingly into his style of 1916 and clearly owes a good deal to such pictures as Juan Gris' 'The Cherries' of 1915. The objects include a flask, a wine-glass, a soda syphon and a tin or container of Charter Oak Milk on a table. There was originally another Cubist painting on the back of a man playing a clarinet; the two pictures were separated in 1958.

It is probably one of the works which first passed through the hands of Léonce Rosenberg of the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, who had Rivera under contract for several years during his Cubist period. Léonce Rosenberg told Bertram D. Wolfe in 1936: 'Monsieur Rivera did about five major pictures a month for me, not counting sketches, pastels, watercolours, etc. He was always one of my most prolific painters' (cf. Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, London 1963, p.86). It is not among the small number of works by Rivera in Léonce Rosenberg's photographic records.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.634-5, reproduced p.634