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María Izquierdo Photo

María Izquierdo

Mexican Painter and Watercolorist

Born: October 30, 1902 - Jalisco, Mexico
Died: December 2, 1955 - Mexico City, Mexico
Movements and Styles:
Feminist Art
"You do not paint with your hands: the painting should be born in your soul, pass through your brain, and then your emotions must spill it onto a canvas, panel, or wall."
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María Izquierdo
"I try to make my work reflect the true Mexico, which I feel and love. I avoid anecdotal, folkloric and political themes because they do not have expressive or poetic strength, and I think that, in the world of art, a painting is an open window to human imagination."
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María Izquierdo
"Above all women must unite and fight together strongly to improve their condition. Women have to cease being luxury objects and transform themselves into a factor within the class struggle; they ought to evolve socially and participate directly in the revolutionary struggle."
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María Izquierdo
"It is a crime to be born a woman and have talent."
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María Izquierdo

Summary of María Izquierdo

Developing her unique visual language during the post-revolutionary decades in Mexico, María Izquierdo brought indigenous motifs into the present and gave them new layers of meanings. In her hands, evocations of Mexico's heritage invited reflections on both personal and social histories (as well as the two's intertwinement). Izquierdo stood out from her (male-dominated) artistic circle especially by using her art to bring attention to the struggles facing modern Mexican women living under traditional patriarchy. Today she is celebrated as a pioneering woman artist who fought against oppression and censorship by the art establishment and who provided a path for younger generations to follow in creating new works that proudly celebrated their heritage and identity.


  • Izquierdo is known for her signature sculptural rendering of human figures that drew inspiration from indigenous sculptures and reliefs. Such a method allowed her to allude to Mexico's pre-Hispanic heritage without necessarily painting traditional imagery. Rather, her rendering technique brought the reference into the contemporary, showing the over-layering of the present and the past in modern life.
  • While the use of indigenous motifs was not new in Mexican art at the time, Izquierdo paved the way for traditional motifs and folklore to be used in new and more artistically capacious ways. They were no longer restricted to serving as symbols of patriotic values for a male-centered nationalist narrative. She redefined what it meant to portray modern Mexican identity "without falling into Mexican curios," as she put it, that is, the use of heritage objects as a signifier of a monolithic traditional identity. Instead, she incorporated those motifs within the framework of a dynamic and international Mexican modernism.
  • Izquierdo imbued her works with a feminist consciousness that was ahead of her time. Through her artworks she gave new meanings to womanhood and femininity, celebrating power, courage, and independence, and breaking from conventional gender roles and ideas of women as subservient to men. She brought the personal into an art world that valorized public and masculine national identity and resisted women's participation. Her artworks align with the later feminist credo, "The personal is political," as art historian Nancy Deffebach has noted.

Biography of María Izquierdo

Homage painting to María Izquierdo.

At fourteen, Izquierdo's grandparents convinced her to take part in an arranged marriage with an older soldier. When the marriage didn't work out, and with artistic aspirations of her own, Izquierdo left her husband and enrolled in formal art studies while also taking care of her three children. She would continue throughout her life to be a voice advocating for women's rights and independence. Her politics and works served as inspiration for many younger women artists.

Important Art by María Izquierdo

Progression of Art

Retrato de Belem (Belem's portrait)

This portrait was part of Izquierdo's first solo exhibition, which took place in November 1929 at the Gallery of Modern Art of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. In this early work, the artist lovingly painted her half-sister, Belem. She is shown standing next to a wooden dresser, wearing a burgundy dress and black high heels. Belem's expression is serene. She stands in a simplified yet stylized space: On the dresser, the vase, folder, and gourd rattle are rendered but do not cast shadows. The rattle's colorful surface pattern and style suggest it is a piece of olinalá craftwork, an indigenous carving, painting, and lacquering technique traditionally done on wood or gourds (Izquierdo collected these items). The name olinalá came from the name of the town for which the technique was especially known. Izquierdo's inclusion of such a craft item may be read as a reminder of what had been disregarded in the post-revolutionary construction of national identity, namely, "manual labor, the indigenous, and the female."

In this portrait we also see an early iteration of Izquierdo's sculptural rendering of figures, the inspiration for which she drew from Aztec sculptures. This rendering style would become her signature. With the pictorial space slanted toward the audience and the apple on the bottom foreground as perhaps a reference to Paul Cézanne, the composition also takes a cue from modernist compositional experiments from the late nineteenth century. Such experiments had paved the way for Surrealism in the early twentieth century. Izquierdo would often be associated with the movement due to her use of a skewed perspective (such as in this work) and dream-like compositions as inspired by Giogio de Chirico's works. However, it is important to note that some critics have disputed this association as her artistic motivation differed greatly from the Surrealists' vision of art as a gateway to the subconscious. What's more, Surrealism did not have a strong presence in Mexico until after her formative period, through the migration of Surrealist artists fleeing the war in Europe in the early 1940s. Rather, her pictorial language drew from a European modernist lineage, which she knew through reproductions, including the works of Picasso and Gauguin. In addition, their works by her time would already have been absorbed by modern art circles in Mexico, especially among the internationalist circle around the magazine Contemporénos. (Tamayo, an influential teacher as well as her lover of 4 years, also collected European modernist art).

Oil on canvas - Blaisten Collection Museum, Mexico City


Amazona Blanca (White Horsewoman)

Also known as Caballista del Circo (Circus Bareback Rider), this painting is one of Izquierdo's many representations of female circus performers, whom she saw growing up. The woman is depicted wearing a white tutu, gracefully balancing on top of a tiny, moving white pony while holding a red riding crop. The representation emphasizes the rider's skill and control of the animal. Next to the pony, we can see a sphere in earthy, red tones and, behind it, a column with the same color choice: geometric forms that allude to props in circus performances. The background is dark, forming a gloomy atmosphere in ochre that creates a sharp contrast with the white dress of the woman and her pony but also slightly merges with her brown skin. (Izquierdo often depicted herself and other women with brown skin to show her pride in her roots.)

The many images of female circus performers painted by Izquierdo serve as a testament to women's extraordinary power, courage, and independence. The title in Spanish includes the word Amazona, which, in addition to its meaning of female rider, also alludes to the mythical female warrior tribe. Izquierdo's representation of femininity broke with Mexico's conventional idea of womanhood at that time, which was commonly associated with motherhood, self-sacrifice, and submission. Izquierdo made the conscious choice to depict women in a very different light: the skilled and graceful horsewoman is a picture of bravery and confidence, characteristics that were typically linked to men in the Mexican Muralism movement.

Watercolor and gouache on paper - Blanton Museum of Art, Texas


Alegoría del trabajo (Allegory of Work)

Allegory of Work alludes to Mexico's indigenous motifs in order to address women's struggles in the country. In it, a naked woman is sitting down and covering her face with her hands, while, in the background, a pair of muscular legs tower over her. At the connecting point between the legs there is a golden sphere covered with lunar and stellar symbols, from which light rays emanate into the sky. Characteristic of Izquierdo's works, the scene is set in a mountainous landscape of red, blue, and golden hills; the color palette overall is sombre and earthy.

On many occasions Izquierdo stated that indigenous culture, both past and present, was the foundation of modern Mexican art. Still, seldom did she resort to pre-Columbian motifs in a straightforward way. In this case, the pre-Hispanic cosmic symbols above the crotch raise further questions: Are the legs also representative of the deities? Or do they allude to outsize patriarchal influences resembling those of the gods? The title of the artwork is also mysterious: What kind of work is it referring to? There is a strong sexual connotation in the positioning of the naked woman and the menacing presence above her. The painting could perhaps be read as an allegorical commentary on female exploitation and subjugation in Mexican culture.

Watercolor and tempera on paper - Blaisten Collection Museum, Mexico City


Alegoría de la libertad (Allegory of Freedom)

Completed after Allegory of Work, Allegory of Freedom continues to explore similar themes. The artwork depicts freedom as the central, personified figure. She is winged and carrying a torch, corresponding with traditional representations. To our surprise, however, when we look further down, we see that she is also holding five heads of women, which she grabs by their long black hair. To the left of the painting, an ominous pillar of black smoke rises out of a chimney, as if sending her off on her journey as she flies upwards heading into a dark night sky. If this is an image of freedom, as the title suggests, it surely is one that is more discomforting than uplifting.

The artwork makes a commentary about the sacrifices women must make in order to gain freedom. The representation of the five beheaded women is significant as it refers to the pre-Hispanic ritual of sacrifice in which warriors would grab their kneeling victims by their hair as a sign of dominance over them. This scene is common in paintings and reliefs in both Aztec and Mayan art. In Izquierdo's work, the decapitated heads suggest violent deaths, presumably perpetrated by freedom herself, while the smoking fireplace sets the scene in Izquierdo's contemporary world by referencing modernity.

The artwork holds multiple meanings for Izquierdo: It represents her connection with her indigenous roots but also reflects on how women in her time were still subdued by powers beyond their control even while trying to achieve freedom. It may even cast doubt on the notion of "freedom" itself, which historically was accorded to some while also used as an excuse to perpetrate violence on others.

Watercolor on paper - Blaisten Collection Museum, Mexico City


Autorretrato (Self-Portrait)

This self-portrait is the artist's ode to her roots. She depicted herself with brown skin in a traditional white dress that contrasts strikingly with her red shawl on which we see faint, indigenous geometric motifs. Her hair is braided, adorned with flowers, and her gesture is serene, with a hint of pride, as she gazes directly at us. In the background, Izquierdo painted a mountainous view, a recurrent backdrop in her works signifying traditional Mexican landscape, and next to her body stands a column on which a white horse figurine rests and is facing her (horses were also another common motif in Mexican art). The color palette is in her characteristic earthy tones, but the bright white and red color choices for the dress and the shawl are uncommon and bring her presence into focus.

Izquierdo's choice of the traditional regional costume of the state of Veracruz and her rendering of her indigenous facial features and skin tone shine the spotlight on her proud mestizo heritage. The colors of the dress and the shawl may, furthermore, also refer to the colors of the Mexican flag. Today, the color white in the flag is often taken to serve as a symbol of peace, while the red is understood to represent the bloodshed of the nation's heroes in their fight for independence. On a personal level, the white horse figurine atop the column can be seen as a reference to her own artistic and life journey, since it is reminiscent of the wooden horse models she often used in her portrayals of female circus performers: representations that symbolize women's courage and independence.

Oil on canvas - Blaisten Collection Museum, Mexico City


Sueño y Presentimiento (Dream and Premonition)

Commonly referred to as the last of Izquierdo's great works, this piece depicts a nightmarish vision. We see Izquierdo peering from a window, holding a severed head that bears a resemblance to herself. The decapitated head's long hair is tangled with the roots and branches of leafless trees that extend out from an adjacent window, on which more heads hang. Below her, the tears of her severed head turn into foliage as they drip onto a boat with a Catholic cross. The landscape is arid and features miniature hills and dead tree trunks. The earthy ochre tones of the land contrast with the gloomy and oppressive dark blue sky. These elements together create a grief and violent dreamscape that mixes in religious symbolisms of death.

Izquierdo made this work after losing an important mural commission in Mexico City partly because she was a woman. This event took a toll on her mental health, and the painting is understood to capture one of the nightmares she began to have around this time. (It is, in fact, her only known artwork depicting a dream). Still, as critics have pointed out, to read this work through the lens of her personal biography alone may shortchange its multi-layered meanings and reinforce gender stereotypes regarding "feminine" subject matter. Given that Izquierdo's artworks had always explored the intertwinement of personal, political, and national histories, the work may be said to link up her anguish with post-revolutionary national turmoil. The depictions of deracinated trees, headless bodies, and her body inside a white adobe house speak to this broader context. As art historian Robin Adèle Greeley has noted, the white house especially is a motif linked to national identity that appeared in another work she painted in the same year (Desolación, 1947), as well as in an earlier painting by the muralist José Clemente Orozco (La casa blanca, 1925-27), which Izquierdo would've known.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
María Izquierdo
Influenced by Artist
  • Antonin Artaud
    Antonin Artaud
  • Lola Alvarez Bravo
    Lola Alvarez Bravo
  • No image available
    Celia Arredonde
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Raul Uribe
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Diana Gabriela Castillo Toriz

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"María Izquierdo Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Diana Gabriela Castillo Toriz
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 15 Dec 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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