Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida Kahlo’s First Auto-Portrait

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is the first of Frida Kahlo’s many self-portraits and establishes many of their characteristics, from her style and symbolism to her expression of suffering and her personal experience. In this article, Singulart discusses Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress in the context of Frida Kahlo’s self portraiture and her life and legacy

Who was Frida Kahlo? 

 Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, photograph by her father, Guillermo Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist celebrated for her portraits and self-portraits which explore themes around identity, post-colonialism, nationalism, gender, class and race. Her paintings are characterized by their naive style and strong autobiographical references mixed with fantasy. She was born to a German father and a mother of Spanish and Native American descent. She spent most of her life in her family home, “La Casa Azul”, in Coyoacàn. Disabled by polio as a child, she was also in a crippling car accident at the age of 18, leaving her to suffer from chronic pain and severe health problems throughout her life. It was during her recovery from the car accident that Kahlo turned to painting and came to consider a career as an artist. 

In 1927 she joined the Mexican communist party and met the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1928. Over the next few years she traveled around Mexico and the USA with Rivera developing her artistic style. Her paintings caught the eye of the surrealist artist André Breton, who organized her first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. The following year she exhibited in Paris and her painting The Frame was bought by the Louvre, making her the first Mexican artist to feature in the collection. Throughout the 1940s she continued to work and exhibit in Mexico and the USA, creating a total of around 200 paintings over the course of her lifetime. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death the following year. Today her work remains hugely popular as an emblem of Mexican and female identity. 

What’s happening in Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress? 

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is one of Frida Kahlo’s earliest paintings and her first self portrait, a subject to which she would return on numerous occasions throughout her lifetime. It is also considered to be her first professional painting and consequently the starting point of her career as an artist. She painted the portrait the year after her crippling bus accident in 1925, for her boyfriend at the time Alejandro Gomez Arias, who had recently broken up with her as he considered her to be too liberal. In an attempt to win back his affection, Kahlo sent him this self-portrait with a letter attached stating: “I implore you to put it in a low place where you can see it as if you were looking at me.” 

In Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress Kahlo portrays herself from the waist up, in a regal, classical position inspired by the work of European painters such as Parmigianino and Modigliani. She is wearing a deep red dress with a patterned collar, her right hand is raised and she stares directly out of the canvas. Her strong gaze, combined with her elongated neck and fingers and her heavily defined eyebrows were all details that would continue to appear in her later self-portraits. In the background is a stormy seascape, with rolling waves against a black sky, which she claimed were symbols of life. The contrast between the relative realism of her own self portrait and the naive style in which the background is depicted is characteristic of Kahlo’s style. It is the result of her self taught style, drawing inspiration from her native mexican folk art as well as Western art.

Frida Kahlo’s self portraits 

Frida Kahlo’s self portraits are emotive expressions of her personal experience and are filled with the pain and suffering that she experienced in her life. This quality is evident from the start in Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, as her pursed lips and steady gaze seem to hold back the emotion that is linked to the context of her break-up and her self-esteem in relation to this event in her life. Frida Kahlo’s persistent projection of herself in paint also created an important image that transcends her singular experience to encompass many elements of female experience, explaining why her self-portraits in particular have become icons of female identity and important feminist symbols. 

See similar artwork in Singulart’s Inspired by Frida Kahlo collection.

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