Kahlo’s Surreal ‘Thanksgiving’ Portrait: An Homage to a Gardener

Fans of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo know about her self portraits, her tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, and her many health problems stemming from a bus accident in her teen years. But how many know about her love of gardening? To be more specific: her love of horticulture?

This holiday week led us on a quest to find Kahlo’s thoughts on Thanksgiving. The artist who lived in both Detroit, Michigan and San Francisco, Calif. surely celebrated the traditional feast, with a Kahlo twist, we thought.

But, instead of Thanksgiving memories, one of her lesser known portraits came to light. It’s a departure from her self portraits and images of heartache. What we uncovered was the 1931 painting she named the Portrait of Luther Burbank, in honor of the most famous horticulturist of her day.

Known for his groundbreaking work in the art of garden cultivation, Burbank’s legacy found an unexpected yet captivating narrative in Kahlo’s brushstrokes.

But why?

Why would Kahlo devote her time to painting a famous gardener from the United States? There are many good reasons.

Unveiling Burbank’s Thanksgiving Legacy

According to one art historian, Kahlo’s surreal depiction of Burbank adds a unique hue to Thanksgiving reflections.

“The Thanksgiving holiday is supposed to be about enjoying our family and friends surrounded by a bountiful array of tasty food, but how many of us gave thanks to Luther Burbank last week?” University of San Francisco Professor, and author of Frida in America, Celia Stahr, asks. “How many people know about Luther Burbank, the ‘Wizard of Horticulture?’  Frida certainly did because she created this incredible portrait of him while she was living in San Francisco.”

Yes, always a trendsetter, Kahlo was giving thanks, in the best way she knew how, to the man who introduced the mashed potatoes served in millions of U.S. homes this week.

While living in San Francisco, Kahlo visited the site of Burbank’s many creations, Santa Rosa, Calif. 

“Frida went to Burbank’s house and witnessed first hand what this man had created: a horticulturist’s paradise,” Stahr explains.

Among those creations are fruits, vegetables, and flowers still popular today, like the Russet potato, which is used by the McDonald’s fast food restaurant chain to make all of its French fries. With over 800 plants to his name, Burbank is also credited with inventing the gladiola flower and the Santa Rosa plum. 

Kahlo was not the only V.I.P. thankful for his contributions to the food world. During his lifetime, the farm was visited by notables including Author Hellen Keller, fellow inventor Thomas Edison, and car mogul Henry Ford.


The Fusion of Legacy and Nature

In this peculiar portrait, Kahlo departs from conventional depictions, and crafts an otherworldly fusion of man and nature.

Burbank, known for his unusual plant hybrids, emerges as a hybrid himself: a half-man, half-tree entity. It’s all a symbolic portrayal of his intimate relationship with the botanical world.

Kahlo’s canvas embodies her favorite theme: the amalgamation of life and death, epitomized by Burbank’s burial beneath a tree on his California estate, a metaphor that resonated with Kahlo’s culture.

Rooted in indigenous beliefs, Mexican culture intertwines humanity with nature. The fusion of human beings with plants and animals finds resonance in her portrayal of Burbank — a testament to the enduring influence of Latino heritage on her artistic expression.

“In Mexican culture, they believe human beings would transfer into plants and animals and this is a common topic in Mexican art,” the tribute site FridaKahlo.org writes. 

And, even though the two never met, the world is thankful they live together in a portrait.

“… her portrait of him is extraordinary, revealing a connection that she must have felt with this ‘wizard,” Stahr writes.

Cathy-Nuestro-Stories-Writer-Image-200x275

By Sofia Jones

When Sofia Jones is not interviewing Latinx stars for her iHeartRadio podcast, she can be found fostering (and cuddling with) cute small dogs for a South Florida animal rescue nonprofit.

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