Rivera’s Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed

When Diego Rivera included an image of Soviet leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin in a mural for the newly constructed RCA Building, controversy arose and the painting was destroyed.

Summary of Event

Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera managed to earn commissions from mainstream government and corporate leaders while simultaneously portraying the struggles and epics of the laboring classes. His murals, which frequently embellished the walls of public buildings, drew attention to native farmers, peasants, and urban dwellers. In the United States, he often focused on those who worked on assembly lines and thereby fueled industrial processes. [kw]Rivera’s Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed (Feb., 1934)[Riveras Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed (Feb., 1934)]
[kw]Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed, Rivera’s (Feb., 1934)
[kw]Mural Is Destroyed, Rivera’s Rockefeller Center (Feb., 1934)
Rockefeller Center;Rivera mural
Art;Rockefeller Center mural
[g]United States;Feb., 1934: Rivera’s Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed[08590]
[c]Arts;Feb., 1934: Rivera’s Rockefeller Center Mural Is Destroyed[08590]
Rivera, Diego
Rockefeller, Nelson A.
Orozco, José Clemente
Siqueiros, David Alfaro
Kahlo, Frida

Rivera’s subject matter evolved from his political beliefs. An activist who was kicked out of but later reinstated in the Mexican Communist Party, his artistic interpretations of doctrine were direct and uncomplicated. Rivera’s murals also displayed an understanding of higher mechanics and of the ways in which various physical and human elements interacted. From a political perspective, his work could move the masses; from a technical perspective, it appealed to the cognoscenti.

The collision between subject matter and patronage had surfaced before Rivera was commissioned to do a mural at the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York City, but to a different degree. In the United States, the conflict proved to be more acute than in Mexico, where the Revolution of 1910 had empowered the country’s vast citizenry and diminished the European, particularly Spanish, influences of the reigning elite. Rivera’s American debut took place in San Francisco in 1930. His murals soon graced the walls of the local stock exchange and the California School of Fine Arts. Although some condemned the painter for being a Communist, his San Francisco tenure proved personally enjoyable, and it ended without incident.

Rivera’s next major assignment foreshadowed the events that would transpire in New York City. The Detroit Art Commission, under the chairmanship of automobile mogul Edsel Ford, gave the artist complete freedom to decorate the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The resulting epic consisted of twenty-seven panels, the artist’s self-described vision depicting “in color and form the story of each industry and its division of labor.” Given the sheer number of political statements that could be interpreted in such a massive work, controversy was hardly surprising. Father Charles Coughlin, Coughlin, Charles a conservative, virulently jingoistic, Detroit-based priest then at the height of his national influence, proved to be one of the most threatening critics. Rivera’s creation provoked extreme reactions on all fronts, drawing support as well as criticism. A disparate group of workers coalesced solely for the purpose of protecting the murals, and they threatened the use of force.

Nelson A. Rockefeller was a Diego Rivera supporter, and his wife, Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, had several of the artist’s works in her collection. After expressing a desire to see the Detroit murals, the millionaire philanthropist soon followed up with a letter describing another project: decoration of the new RCA Building in Manhattan. The project’s parameters appeared to be circumscribed from the start. Rockefeller’s contractors sent proposals to three chosen artists—Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Pablo Henri Matisse, Matisse, Henri and Rivera—inviting them to participate in a “contest.” Instructions were clear, down to the size of the figures, color scheme (black and white), and varnishing requirements. All three painters, well respected enough by this time to demand artistic freedom, rejected the offer. Rockefeller personally set out to persuade Rivera. After some of the rules were softened, including allowing the use of color, the muralist acceded.

Rivera submitted a sketch addressing the predesignated theme, “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” The design concept, which extolled workers and shunned some of the more egregious facets of industrial society, won Nelson Rockefeller’s approval. Work commenced in March, 1933. The technical aspects of Rivera’s mural painting were labor-intensive. A cadre of assistants applied three surface coatings to ensure stability and enhance color, ground the paints, and transferred the lines of the artist’s sketches to the wall. Rivera then proceeded with his brushwork.

As the painting neared completion in late April, a New York World-Telegram reporter, Joseph Lilly, Lilly, Joseph visited the RCA Building for a preview. The resulting article, headlined “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. [Rockefeller], Jr., Foots Bill,” highlighted many themes that were not new to those familiar with the artist’s work. Representations of toxic materials and poisonous gases, for example, had appeared in the Detroit murals. One element was to make its debut: the figure of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;depiction in Rivera mural

Nelson Rockefeller viewed the mural after reading the article. Claiming to find the work “thrilling,” he nevertheless wrote Rivera a letter requesting that another figure be substituted for Lenin. Rivera sought the counsel of his friends and assistants before telling Rockefeller that Lenin would remain. In an attempt to compromise, Rivera suggested that some additional elements, such as the figure of a great American, could be used for balance.

Several days later, Rockefeller’s contractors and a band of security guards escorted Rivera off the scaffold, paid his full $21,000 commission, and placed canvas over the mural. Workers protested by picketing, and intellectuals, artists, and businesspeople mounted strong pro- and anti-Rivera campaigns. After he paid his expenses and reimbursed his assistants, Rivera retained almost $7,000 from the RCA job. He used his “Rockefeller money” to paint murals in two American Communist institutions, the New Workers’ School and Trotskyite headquarters. The New York frescoes were to be Rivera’s last permanent works in the United States, since all the commissions planned in the United States were canceled or never materialized. Rivera did, however, continue to exhibit and paint on movable panels. In February, 1934, after returning to Mexico, Rivera learned that his previously covered RCA mural had been removed. He gained a commission from the Mexican government and reconstructed the work, with several changes. As Rivera himself described it, a scene of nightclub carousing now included John D. Rockefeller, Jr., “his head but a short distance away from . . . venereal disease germs.”


Although Rivera received no more large American commissions after the Rockefeller incident, other offers came from around the world. Nevertheless, the artist soon turned to easel painting and to the interests of private collectors who would use his work to decorate their homes, galleries, and offices. Mural painting, however, had not yet reached its pinnacle in either the United States or Mexico. Rivera surely contributed to the explosion that followed, but he left the genre before it could be considered common.

Sometimes an extraordinary event can push politics or culture in a certain direction. The RCA mural may have had such an effect. Left-wing politics, wrought out of the Great Depression and Soviet influence, brought about two related art forms, social realism and Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism Both elevated the ordinary person, celebrated daily existence, and called attention to widespread social and economic inequities. Socialist Realism suggested a political, clearly Marxist answer to working-class dilemmas, and it was the more blatantly propagandistic of the two schools. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin mandated Socialist Realism as the cultural medium. Artists who did not pursue it were denied commissions, banished, or even killed.

Some historians pointed out that the RCA murals represented a leap for Rivera from social realism to Socialist Realism. Meanwhile, in the United States, critics wondered whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt was leading the country toward socialism. If that were the case, however, the course was temporary and motivated by economics. Roosevelt’s first term, which began in 1933, saw a flurry of progressive legislation aimed at reducing widespread unemployment. One of these programs was the Works Progress Administration Works Progress Administration (WPA), initiated in 1935. Part of that program engaged artists and writers in the celebration and documentation of American cultural heritage. WPA commissions soon enlivened post office walls, government buildings, and many other public venues. Rivera’s influence radiated from these brightly colored murals, which were often rendered in social realist style, were filled with historical references, and illustrated themes inspired by the working class.

It is impossible to address the work of Diego Rivera without mentioning two of his contemporaries, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The tres grandes, or big three, differed in techniques and in their personal and artistic responses to political events, yet they collectively elevated their chosen genre. According to one expert, Mexican mural commissions reached their peak in the late 1950’s, although in the decade that followed a whole new generation of Mexican artists concerned with social values drew their inspiration from the great muralists. Siqueiros was particularly influential in helping to organize the Syndicate of Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, Syndicate of Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers a sort of postrevolutionary union that was ultimately responsible for instituting mural painting as a national art form in Mexico. The tres grandes experienced the United States in similar ways. All worked there during the Depression, and after the Rockefeller Center incident, they were never again to receive large, permanent commissions.

Rivera possibly held more of a universal appeal than did either Siqueiros or Orozco. Unlike his respected colleagues, he benefited from a solid general education and from formal artistic training in Europe. Rivera first studied in Spain, then moved to Paris, where he was mentored by Picasso and was captured on Amedeo Modigliani’s canvas. His use of color is said to have been derived from classical Italian frescoes, and for a while he dabbled in cubism. Europe during Rivera’s stay (1907-1921) also blazed with differing political philosophies, including nationalism and Marxism. As a result, the artist gained a sense of history and learned how to incorporate his ideas into unique and timely contexts. On his Detroit commission, he conducted interviews, and he sent his assistants to research American historical figures for the RCA mural. Later, in the midst of the 1936 controversy concerning his Communist credentials, Rivera was invited by fascist leader Benito Mussolini to paint in Italy.

The muralist exuded a personal charm that drew fledgling artists to him. His wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, respected for her sensitive portrayal of women’s emotional needs and feelings, declared at the age of thirteen that she wanted to have a child by Rivera. In a different way, his assistants formed a cadre of steadfast supporters. There is evidence, for example, that Rivera might have acceded to Rockefeller’s demands if these young men and women had not threatened to strike over such terms. In addition to his own enduring artistic legacy, the Rivera influence survived through the work of assistants Lucienne Bloch, John Hastings, and, most notably, social realist painter Ben Shahn.

Decades after his death, Rivera’s influence endures. During the early 1990’s, the Mexican and U.S. governments promoted a traveling art exhibit of Rivera’s work that was so large that, with some extra borrowing or by digging into permanent collections, museums could focus on any number of styles, historic eras, or themes. In this way, the ever-buoyant Diego Rivera was introduced to a new generation. (Frida Kahlo also enjoyed a revival during the early 1990’s, particularly attracting the attention of young women who could relate to her style and empathize with her spirit.) Rockefeller Center;Rivera mural
Art;Rockefeller Center mural

Further Reading

  • Chavez, Augustin Velazquez. Contemporary Mexican Artists. New York: Covici-Friede, 1937. Thumbnail sketches, typically two pages in length, and four black-and-white plates are used to present each of the twenty-five artists included here. A short introductory section lends unity to the book.
  • Goldman, Shifra M. Contemporary Mexican Painting in a Time of Change. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977. Although most of this book focuses on a later generation, this work portrays Rivera and other muralists as wellsprings of modern Mexican art. Goldman demonstrates the interrelationships among various painters, how they inspired each other and split to create new schools or perspectives. The historical and political nature of art is an important theme.
  • Helm, MacKinley. Modern Mexican Painters. New York: Dover, 1974. A chapter on Rivera lends insight into the artist’s technique and evolution over the years. It is evident that Helm, a collector with informed opinions, came to know the muralist through both personal interviews and exhibitions. Their conversations periodically surface on these pages. A good discussion of the differences between Rivera the person and Rivera the artist.
  • McMeekin, Dorothy. Diego Rivera: Science and Creativity in the Detroit Murals. Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1985. A massive mural project—twenty-seven frescoes in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts—is used to illustrate Rivera’s comprehension of biology, geology, and technology. The broader political feelings are apparent, too, thus providing a good basis of comparison with the Rockefeller Center work.
  • Marnham, Patrick. Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Thoroughly researched biography strikes a perfect balance between providing enough historical context to orient the reader well and providing so much that the book’s subject is obscured.
  • Museum of Modern Art (New York). Diego Rivera. New York: Arno Press, 1931. Published to celebrate Rivera’s one-person show at the museum, this catalog contains more than one hundred black-and-white plates. A short bibliography and a time line offer an excellent perspective on early, enduring influences including the artist’s nurturing and liberal family; impressive general education; and encouragement, from the age of three, to pursue creative avenues.
  • Rivera, Diego, with Gladys March. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York: Citadel Press, 1960. Rivera writes in an informal voice, divulging details and presenting his side of an often controversial life story. The appendix features “statements” from each of the four women whom he lived with or married.
  • Rochfort, Desmond. Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998. Lavishly illustrated. A good place to begin for readers interested in comparing these three giants’ works.
  • Wolfe, Bertram D. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Stein & Day, 1963. Perhaps the most comprehensive basic biography of Rivera, this book includes a chapter on “The Battle of Rockefeller Center.” The author was an adviser to the artist during the episode, and he uses correspondence, business documents, and contemporary accounts to describe it.

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