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.”
– 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.
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.
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.