Up until recently, there were only 12 works by celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in American public collections. Now, there's one more on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia) is the first painting Kahlo ever sold, and it's been in the same family ever since.
Kahlo is known for her fantastical self-portraits, but Dos Mujeres shows two other women.
"They were her maids [who] worked in her house during her childhood, we believe," says Rhona MacBeth, conservator of paintings at the MFA. "We're still finding out more about them."
They're indigenous Mexicans — one has olive skin and Indian features, and the other is paler with a gold hoop in her ear. They stand against dense, green foliage dotted with fruit and butterflies. According to MacBeth, this painting takes us back to the beginning of Kahlo's career, following a violent car crash that left her spine and pelvis permanently damaged.
"Her terrible accident was in 1925; this was only 1928," MacBeth says. "And she really only started painting seriously after the accident, so she's 21 years old at this point."
The two maids in the double portrait might have taken care of Kahlo while she was recovering. MacBeth gently lifts the unframed canvas off the easel and turns it over to reveal signatures that were apparently added at a party celebrating its sale.
"Frida Kahlo signs it," she says. "It's dated July 1929, which, interestingly enough, is the year after the painting was made, and it's one month before she marries Diego Rivera."
Muralist Diego Rivera signed the painting too, and so did the man who bought it, American industrialist Jackson Cole Phillips. The painting remained with Phillips' heirs until they put it up for sale at a New York City gallery. That's where Elliot Bostwick Davis found it. She's chair of the MFA's Art of the Americas wing.
"I could not believe I was seeing this," Davis says. "She showed me the back and all the inscriptions, and the fact that it had been exported from Mexico in 1929 and it had been in one family. Of course, Frida Kahlo's work today is cultural patrimony in Mexico, so we could never really hope to buy just any Frida Kahlo unless it had been out of the country for a very long time."
The museum won't say how much it paid for the painting, but the current record for a Kahlo at auction is $5.6 million. The MFA has been criticized for not having a more diverse Latin American collection, and MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum hopes this new acquisition will help change that.
"Our dream was to acquire something by Frida Kahlo, who is an artist who really was a pathfinder and a woman with strong political views that animated her heart," he says. "And this came on the market and everybody knew that it was going to be important for us and help us invite new audiences into the MFA."
Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia) is on display through March 1, then it heads back to Rhona MacBeth in the conservation lab to try to solve some of the paintings other mysteries — like how Jackson Cole Phillips brought it back from Mexico in the first place.
"I have a suspicion that maybe he just rolled it up and took it home in his suitcase," MacBeth says, "partly because of these little cracks here which are rather unusual and horizontal."
The painting will be permanently installed in the MFA's Art of the Americas wing later this year.