Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (image via Library of Congress)

In a soon-to-be-released BBC documentary, a grandson of Diego Rivera claims that the Mexican artist may have assisted Frida Kahlo, his third wife, in taking her own life. According to the Guardian, Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera said that his grandfather “probably” assisted the alleged suicide as a final act of love.

“If your companion of life says, ‘I’m tired, I really want to go now, help me’ — well, maybe you try,” Rivera says in the last episode of the three-part series Becoming Frida Kahlo, to be aired next month.  

Kahlo passed away in 1952 at the age of 47 after suffering decades of debilitating pain. A childhood bout of polio and a horrific traffic accident at the age of 18 left her body disabled. After multiple failed surgeries throughout her life, an infection led to the amputation of Kahlo’s leg the year before her death.

Kahlo also experienced multiple miscarriages and abortions, which she depicted in some of her paintings. Her marriage to Rivera was marred by infidelity that she documented in her letters, and she became addicted to alcohol and pills in her later years. While Kahlo’s wide breadth of work explored larger themes of gender, identity, and belonging, both medical and art history scholars have written about the artist’s life and work through the lenses of physical and emotional pain.

Kahlo also seemed to have anticipated her death: In her last diary entry, she thanks a list of doctors and friends, writing, “I hope the leaving is joyful — and I hope never to return — FRIDA.” Following the written entry, the artist crafted a depiction of the angel of death.

The cause of Kahlo’s death on July 13 of 1954 was officially deemed a “pulmonary embolism.” However, no autopsy was performed and some have speculated that her death was actually caused by an intentional overdose of painkillers left on her nightstand.

James Oles, a specialist in Latin American art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a scholar of Kahlo’s work, is suspicious of such suggestions about the artist’s death.

“These are ideas floated by people who, despite their command of the literature on Kahlo, are merely speculating,” Oles told Hyperallergic in an email. “I could speculate about many other things about her life, and in fact, much of the discussion of her personal life is based on testimony and documentation that wouldn’t hold up in court.”

“We should be cautious when discussing intimate facts about dead people,” Oles continued. “No one alive was there at her bedside or could contradict these ideas — which is all they are, pure ideas — and this is history veering into fiction.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.