Diego Rivera, The Rockefellers, and Artistic Expression: A Brief History of Man at the Crossroads

Lauryn Ellis
4 min readJan 31, 2020

These days, the name Diego Rivera may not be recognizable to the general public. Those that do know him likely connect him to his wife, the late painter Frida Kahlo. But during his life, Rivera was a giant in the art world. Known as one of “Los Tres Grandes”, he was a pivotal figure in the Mexican muralism movement. His work, Man at the Crossroads, was a seminal piece in his body of work, one that still raises questions about censorship and artistic integrity.

Rivera knew he was going to be an artist from an early age. Picking up a pencil for the first time at the age of three, his father constructed a studio made of canvas walls to keep him occupied. He went on to study at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts and later moved to Madrid to study under Eduardo Chicharro. Early in his career he dabbled in cubism but found his style in frescoes and muralism.

Mexican muralism was a movement that began in the early 1920s as a way of inspiring national pride. Later, it would go on to inspire the Chicano art movement. Rivera was not the first painter to rise to prominence in this style, nor was he the first artist to incorporate philosophy and politics into his work.

It was through his murals that the Rockefellers came to know Rivera. The matriarch of the family, Abigail Rockefeller, was one of his most significant patrons. Yet despite his favored status, he wasn’t their first choice for the project; Abigail’s son, Nelson, wanted Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse for the project. They weren’t available, so Nelson acquiesced to his mother’s tastes and approached Rivera with an offer.

While the contract was getting drawn up for Rockefeller Center, Rivera was mired in another controversy with his Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. Unlike the Rockefellers, Edsel Ford seemed to enjoy the attention. The panels included a depiction of Joseph and Mary giving a child vaccinations, and black and white factory workers working side by side.

Before work began on the project, Rivera presented a sketch to the family — one that included a solider, a worker and a peasant holding hands. With that sketch in mind, the Rockefellers gave the artist the latitude to execute his vision as he saw fit. Unfortunately, his vision and theirs ended up at odds. In Rivera’s world, communism united people from all walks of life, whereas capitalism drove a wedge between them. Capitalism was the cause of suffering; to Rivera, communism was the solution.

After a journalist accused the Rockefellers of supporting communist propaganda in a piece entitled “Rivera Perpetrates Scenes of Communist Activity for RCA Walls — and Rockefeller, Jr. Foots Bill”, the family decided they couldn’t let it go any longer. Nelson Rockefeller and his board of trustees asked Rivera to remove the image of Vladimir Lenin, an addition made after the aforementioned piece in the New York World-Telegram. The problem seemed to be the portrayal of Lenin as a sympathetic figure, where John D. Rockefeller was not.

“The picture of Lenin was on the right-hand side, and on the left, a picture of [my] father drinking martinis with a harlot and various other things that were unflattering to the family and clearly inappropriate to have as the center of Rockefeller Center,” he said. (Source: NPR)

Once the subject was broached, Rivera offered to add an image of Abraham Lincoln as a compromise, but the offer did not suit the Rockefellers. This left Rivera at a crossroads: he could acquiesce to the wants of his patrons, or remain true to his artistic vision. Nelson Rockefeller was open to moving the piece to the Museum of Modern Art, but his board of trustees didn’t agree. In the end, Rivera chose his vision. When it was clear no compromise could be reached, the Rockefellers paid out the rest of Rivera’s contract and sent him home.

An important item to note is the ownership of the piece. In the contract that Rivera signed, he turned total ownership of the work over to the Rockefeller family the moment it was completed. However, since Mexican muralism was inherently political and Rivera was a very vocal communist, the inclusion of figured like Lenin wasn’t only relevant to the subject of the piece, but to the artist himself.

The Rockefellers may have won the battle but Rivera won the war. Determined that his vision would survive, he recreated the piece under a new title, Man, Controller of the Universe. The current piece shows man and technology were in congruence with one and other, each propelling the other into the future. The work is on display to this day at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.