Diego Rivera, "La Bordadora" (1928), oil on canvas (courtesy Christie's Images Limited)

A Diego Rivera painting that has not been viewed by the public for nearly 100 years was acquired at a Christie’s auction by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) on March 11 for just over $4 million. Titled “La Bordadora” (“the embroiderer”), the 1928 oil-on-canvas painting is an exemplar of what Rivera was known best for — portraying working-class life in his signature abstract realist style.

The painting shows two women sitting at ground-level beside a large wooden stretcher frame: one stitching a floral pattern into a red tapestry in profile, the other looking on, her hand clenched and raised to her mouth, facing the viewer. The younger observer carefully absorbs the embroiderer’s skill and inherits the artistic tradition, one that has likely been passed down from generations of women. A paper box filled with colored balls of yarn sits open-faced on the taut textile. The lunar curve of the embroiderer’s long body draws the viewer’s attention to the craftwork which it cradles, and her ensemble — a fabric hairpiece, bold statement shirt, long skirt, and bare feet — is comfortable and unstudied.

Rivera made this painting after visiting the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, located near Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1923, where he was impressed and influenced by Indigenous cultural expressions.

“Absolutely brilliant in its construction and vibrant colors, the composition exhibits Cubist influences nevertheless, as it denotes a square arranged within an ellipse, both enclosed within a rectangle, demonstrating that Rivera never truly abandoned the avant-garde but instead, acquired a social dimension and a new ideological conscience about art’s commitment in Mexico,” Luis-Martín Lozano wrote for Christie’s in an essay accompanying the auction house’s listing.

The sale makes “La Bordadora” the third most expensive Rivera painting ever sold at auction. Prior to the auction on Friday, it had never been shown publicly, and the only record that it existed was a black-and-white photograph published in the Paris journal Art Vivant in 1930.

For decades, the painting’s location and ownership were unknown. It was discovered to have been in the possession of a New Orleans family collection, originally purchased in the late 1920s by James Kern Feibleman, a businessman and literature professor who was associated with an artist community that included Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner. These New Orleans artists and intellectuals on several occasions corresponded with Mexican artists like Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros; Feibleman’s acquisition of Rivera’s painting reflected their admiration for his work.

In a press release, the MFAH noted a relationship between “La Bordadora” and a cartoon by Rivera in the museum’s permanent collection, depicting an Indigenous worker leaning on his knee working in concert with several others. That sketch was a precursor to a monumental mural cycle that Rivera completed in 1928 for the Ministry of Education in Mexico City

“Both La Bordadora and the ministry murals herald a fundamental theme of Rivera’s life’s work, to capture the dignity of the everyday,” said MFAH’s director, Gary Tinterow, in a statement. “With this acquisition, we will be able to build on the foundations of our extraordinary holdings of 20th-century Latin American art to tell the story of Modernism from its earliest chapters.”

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.