Frida: Love, Loss and Henry Ford

Catherine A. Jones
 | September 1, 2023


One of the most famous faces of the feminist movement, Artist Frida Kahlo, lived her short life riddled by chronic pain.

Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, in Mexico in 1907, the daughter of a German father and Spanish/Mexican mother is known for turning to art in her moments of great pain, physical and emotional.

One of her most devastating and painful moments — and, as a result, most admired paintings — came during her time living in what was known at the time as the automotive capital of the world, Detroit, Michigan. Both the artist and the city would never forget her stay.

Frida Kahlo Goes to Detroit

From 1932 to 1933, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo lived in Detroit with her husband, and fellow artist, Diego Rivera while was painting the Detroit Industry frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Commissioned by the city Arts Commission led by then automobile company President Edsel Ford, the only child of industrialist Henry Ford, the frescoes celebrated “Detroit’s industrial manufacturing power,” according to the The Henry Ford Museum website. “They lie at the heart of the DIA , and also at the heart of Detroit.”

During their time in Detroit, Kahlo had a life-changing experience which led to one of her most discussed pieces of all time – the surrealist painting Henry Ford Hospital – about the miscarriage of her unborn son.

“The painting is an emotional and disturbing self-portrait representing her psychological condition at the time,” the site explains.

The Real Life Miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital

The miscarriage, and her range of feelings surrounded it, are clearly portrayed in the painting which shows the artist hemorrhaging on a hospital bed at Henry Ford Hospital, with six objects floating around her.

The meaning behind the six symbolic items – a fetus, an orchid, a model of the human pelvis, a drawing of the pelvic bone, a piece of medical equipment, and a snail.

Admirers of the piece agree on the symbolism of most of the objects, while a few are frequently debated.

“An orchid looks like a uterus,” the site explains. Yet, others have said the flower represents the gift her husband gave her during a hospital visit, symbolizing his support his wife in a moment of need.

“Henry Ford Hospital is a painting with perhaps the use of symbolism, each item placed side-by-side whereas other places would hide such elements within the foreground and background,” analyzes, adding: “This provided a longevity to those paintings, but also left behind room for discussion and confusion about which items were added for these symbolic values, and also just what exactly their messages should be.”

Fans can see the Henry Ford Hospital oil-on-metal painting now on display at The Dolores Olmedo museum in Mexico.

Today the painting, most would agree, remains a compelling example of Frida Kahlo creating lasting art as she coped with her pain.

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Featured image is from the image Hoja Suelta, by José Guadalupe Posada, 1901.
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