Painting of the bust of a woman draped in a red shawl. Her face stares out at the viewer. Two other women flank her, wearing yellow and green shawls.

La Patrona

The 1930’s was a time of great artistic and political activity for David Alfaro Siqueiros, and as has been widely observed, the decade was transformational for the artist.  Abandoning painting completely in 1937 when he left to fight in the Spanish Civil war, Siqueiros returned to it with a renewed vigor in 1939 while preparing for his first and only one-man show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, NY.  The work in the exhibition, which opened January 1940, integrated the artist’s technical experiments of the mid 30’s with his recent experiences abroad, and included themes of war, suffering, fantastic or ominous landscapes, and heroic Mexican figures like the women in La Patrona

The Pierre Matisse show was organized by Siqueiros’s Mexico City dealer, Inés Amor of the Galería de Arte Mexicano, with help from MacKinley Helm, an American art historian and collector who purchased La Patrona (titled Indian Women in the catalogue) shortly before the show opened. Helm used this image as the cover and frontispiece for his influential book Modern Mexican Painters, published in 1941.  Helm’s close personal relationships with the artists made it possible for him to write a comprehensive, richly detailed survey that became an early introduction to Mexican art for an American audience.

The paintings in the exhibition were made with brush, spray gun, and palette knife, using Duco, a nitrocellulose based lacquer paint that was, at the time, the latest technology for painting cars and trains.  During his visits to Los Angeles in 1932 and New York in 1934, the artist became fascinated by American industry and aspired to explore new ideas, painting techniques, and materials. In March 1936, he founded the “Experimental Workshop” on 5 West 14th Street in New York City, where many students – including the young Jackson Pollock – learned to work with “modern techniques in art.” Siqueiros had been experimenting with these material and technique for years, but he now mastered them completely. One critic raved: “Of the original Mexican trio, [Siqueiros] is the only one to continue to develop new ideas . . . This is the best showing of Siqueiros’ work I have ever seen.”[1]

Helm describes how Siqueiros prepared for the exhibition in 1939, remarking:

“….the last pieces prepared for the exhibition were more plastic, more various in texture and richer in color, than anything I had seen amongst his earlier works.” Helms describes Ethnography (The Mask) as showing “an adaptability in the representation of textures such as would have been thought impossible when Siqueiros began to paint in the new medium” (pp. 94-95).[2]

Regarding La Patrona, Helms states that “In the face and bearing of the mother in the great ‘La Patrona,’ there is uncommon beauty mixed with nobility.”[3] While Siqueiros chose a typical subject – a group of women draped in rebozos – he rendered them without folklore and devoid of the cultural trappings that would identify their ‘Mexicanidad.’  Professor James Oles interprets the title of this painting as ‘the patroness,’ or a post-revolutionary saint or Virgin portrayed without religious iconography.[4] However, the word patron also connotes authority and is commonly applied to a person in charge.  By looking out confidently at the viewer, the main figure in the painting is asserting her independence and power.  The three women stand on equal footing with their American audience, and in a real shift for the artist, they shed the anxiety and agony that often emerge in Siqueiros’s work of the time.[5] Pierre Matisse considered La Patrona to be one of the best paintings in the exhibition, and he included it as one of four images offered to important museums across the country.[6]  Two of those, Ethnography and The Sob, were purchased on behalf of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

The 1930’s was a time of great political chaos for the world as it saw the spread of fascism and the outbreak of World War II. While it was a seminal time for Siqueiros as a painter, it was also one of great sorrow and personal disappointment. These sentiments were emphasized in the 1940 Pierre Matisse Gallery exhibition, but in this context, La Patrona, a calm and beautiful work, stands out as a symbol of hope. In contrast to the horrors the painter left behind in war-torn Spain, these women of Mexico serve as symbols of strength and peace. 

[1] King, Ray. “Fine Exhibit of Siqueiros Paintings.” The Daily Worker. Jan. 24, 1940

[2] MacKinley Helm, Modern Mexican Painters, New York: Harper and Bros., 1941

[3] Ibid.

[4] Oles, Jay. “La Patrona,” in the exhibit. cat. David Alfaro Siqueiros, Portrait of a Decade: 1930 – 1940, INBA, 1997, p. 184

[5] Ibid. “The painting recalls the artist’s images of women in rebozos from the beginning of the decade, but the women here seem to have transcended their sorrow and introspection.” P. 184

[6] Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives, Subseries: Siqueiros, 27.37, Morgan Library & Museum