Frida Kahlo – Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926)

Bedridden after the gruesome accident that left her pelvis, legs, spinal column, collarbone and ribs fractured, Frida Kahlo spent her long convalescence painting, reading voraciously, studying German and Italian Renaissance art and writing passionate letters to her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias. Although the couple was once inseparable, after the accident Alejandro started pulling away and visited Frida less frequently, which only intensified her insecurities and lamentations, as expressed in this letter from 1927:

“I am, as always, sick.  You see how boring this is. I don’t know what else to do, as I’ve been like this for more than a year and I’m fed up.  I have so many complaints, like an old woman! …I’m buten buten* bored!!!!!! You’ll say that I should do something useful, etc., but I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like doing anything – you know that already and that’s why I don’t explain it to you… I, who dreamed so many times of being a navigator or a traveler!  Patino would answer that this is one of the ironies of life.”

*fabulously

 – Frida Kahlo in a letter to Alejandro Gómez Arias, July 10, 1927

 

With the doctors being skeptical of the possibility of Kahlo’s recovery, perhaps Alejandro saw no future for the two of them or he lacked the maturity to imagine himself as the dependable man that she longed for. In the middle of an unstable relationship, Frida, with her notorious self-assurance, decided to woo her lover back by sending him a self-portrait, so that he’d be reminded of her beauty.

 

Frida Kahlo - Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress
Frida Kahlo – Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926), oil on canvas

Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress is remarkable for a number of reasons. For starters, it is the first self-portrait that we know Frida ever painted; this, coming from a woman that would gain notoriety for the way she revealed herself in her numerous portraits. Secondly, it shows her dedication to being a well-rounded artist – her commitment to the study of great European artworks. Last but not least, this very portrait not only wooed Alejandro back, temporarily, but it also struck a chord with her future husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, who would have an everlasting influence on her life and work.

Unofficially, in her letters to Alejandro, Frida referred to the painting as “your Botticelli”, possibly due to the fact that her boyfriend was a fan of the Italian Renaissance artist. But once you take a closer look at the painting itself, you can see she depicted herself as an aristocratic Venus (Goddess of love and beauty in Roman mythology), wearing her crimson velvet dress, with the swirling waves of the sea in the background, a clear reference to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. And yet, there’s more than just Botticelli’s influence shining through, as we can also notice echoes of Bronzino, the Italian Mannerist painter, in the dark background and the contrived way in which she holds her hand.

 

Bronzino - Cosimo I de' Medici in armour
Bronzino – Cosimo I de’ Medici in Armour (c. 1545), oil on poplar

With her elongated neck – reference to Botticelli – and her deep cut, tight dress that reveals her breasts, Frida is striking a solemn, yet seductive pose. The dark blue background is highlighting the whiteness and smoothness of her skin. Her most distinctive and recognizable features are the single eyebrow and a faded mustache, elements that do not take away from her femininity which is further enhanced by the lipstick on her lips and the blush on her cheeks. In spite of her apparent openness to reconcile with Alejandro (the revealing dress, the open hand gesture), the solemnity in her gaze reveals that she won’t let herself be defined by any man.

On the back of the painting, Frida wrote: “For Alex. Frida Kahlo, at the age of 17, September 1926 – Coyoacán – Heute ist Immer Noch (Today still goes on)”.  It was a reminder that she was the same as from before the accident, at age 17, and that her love was just as strong. Now the ball was in Alejandro’s court and, indeed, he came back to her shortly after.

Two years later, when Frida decided to show Diego Rivera her works, eager to hear his opinion, this portrait was among the pieces that she presented. Rivera later recalled: “As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity… They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”  The rest is history, as they say.

19 thoughts on “Frida Kahlo – Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926)

        1. I love that movie! It was thanks to it that I first heard about Frida. Salma Hayek recently wrote in the NYTimes about how difficult it was to produce it, because of Harvey Weinstein. It really made me appreciate it even more…

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    1. Thanks for sharing the article, Emma. It’s very risky when an artist gets aggressively commercialized like this, as their art loses its substance and meaning in all the repetition and overexposure. I’ve seen it with Dali, Magritte, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper. In time, we learn how to block the imagery, the same way we’d do with an annoying ad.

      I was reading recently about how Frida has become an icon for numerous minorities: for the disabled, for the LGBTQ, for feminists, for the Latinos… But if everyone picks only the part that represents them, then what are we left with? I hope we never stop seeing Frida’s whole self, as reflected in her art.

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      1. You make a lot of good points here, Gabriela. When certain images/artists become over exposed it’s hard to “see” them any more. I love Edward Hopper, but for his paintings of the coast and the light on buildings. I don’t especially like his figurative work that everyone’s so crazy about. I dont think he was terribly good at people but was very good at light. Van Gogh is another odd one – he experimented with his style all the time but we are often often shown a particular sort of painting of his (thick paint and expressive strokes). With Frida, I particularly dislike the fake full-body “nude” photos of her that many people take at face valve. So she is reduced to a sexualised object (using the bodies of white models and actresses) and the portrayal of her body is stolen from her. Emma

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        1. Funny you should mention Hopper, for whenever I look at your paintings (especially those urban or at night) I get reminded of him and his treatment of light. I guess you’re like me and when it comes to highly reproduced artists you prefer their lesser known or more experimental works.

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    1. You should watch it ASAP! It stays true to the facts, no matter how exaggerated it might seem. What the Water Gave Me is also a great painting, but I tend to prefer her later portraits. There is so much vulnerability in them, but at the same time, there’s great strength.

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  1. It’s impressive she painted it so young. But that neck! Ouch! Even for a highly stylized neck it’s extremely awkward. But her face is wonderful, and so much of her future work is already present in this early painting.

    I just looked up the Wikipedia article on her because I couldn’t remember how she died. As is usual, I appreciate artists much, much, much more for their art than their biography. The first paragraphs about made me want to gack, as she has been completely politicized despite the highly personal nature of her best art. True, she got involved with politics, had an affair with Trotsky and painted herself with a portrait of Stalin. And this makes me wonder if we really should appreciate artists through the lens of politics, or if her art doesn’t succeed in spite of her political views (of course I am going for the latter).

    I’m afraid to watch the movie because I don’t want my vision of the artist to be colored by a film version, the veracity of which I highly doubt. Every movie I’ve seen about an artists trivialized them, usually making them completely humorless, socially inept, hysterical bores (ex., the one on Pollock). I think I could learn more about Frida just from looking at this painting.

    I discovered her decades ago, and always think of her in comparison with Van Gogh, perhaps because a friend made a comment comparing them way back then.

    Anyway, rather than claim her for this or that political movement, or this or that group of people based on biology at birth or nationality, I would consider in the light of the intense suffering and misfortune she endured, along with her personal relationships…

    In wikipedia it says, “she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society.” No, she didn’t. That would be boring and didactic. She did much more than that, and much more interesting and universal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does anyone know if Frida Kahlo also made an engraving from this painting? I recently came across a small black and white engraving of this work and wondered if it was by Frida or a later copy done by another artist. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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