Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letters to José Bartoli

BY: 
Catherine A. Jones
 | March 22, 2024

Artist Frida Kahlo, known for her vivid art and unapologetic spirit, has a legacy beyond her self portraits we know so well. Kahlo’s life away from the canvas is equally as captivating. Thanks to the recent Amazon Prime documentary in her own words, “Frida,” fans have been invited into her private world, told in her own words. “Frida” also sparked a renewed interest in her once lost love letters to José Bartoli, a Catalan artist, she met while she was married. Kahlo’s passionate love letters provide a rare glimpse into a secret part of her life. It’s a part she kept hidden until she died.

The letters remained hidden from the public for over almost five decades. That’s the way Kahlo and Bartoli wanted it to be – their secret from the world. Years later, the couple unintentionally offers the world a rare glimpse into Kahlo’s heart and soul.

Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letters 

In 2015, the Doyle auction house unveiled approximately the 25 autograph letters, in Spanish, from Kahlo to Bartoli. 

The Doyle auction house describes the letters: “The archive comprising approximately twenty-five autograph letters in Spanish from Kahlo to Bartoli ranging from 2 to 12 pages in length, variously written in colored inks and in pencil, many on a very thin paper, with various enclosures including an original drawing of a sleeping cat, pressed flowers, pieces of ribbon, beads, a few enclosed with drafts of letters in Bartoli’s hand with numerous cross-outs, edits and one drawing, each letter with its original or early envelope, most stamped and postmarked.”

Kahlo signed many of the letters as “Mara,” Bartoli’s affectionate nickname for her from the word “Maravillosa” or “marvellous.” To maintain secrecy, she asked Bartoli to sign as “Sonja.” This was in case that if her husband, Diego Rivera, ever stumbled upon the letters, he would think they were from another woman. 

The affair was Kahlo’s secret, with letters exchanged through friends or via post offices. Kahlo’s sister, Cristina, also helped deliver the letters. Some say Cristina is the one who introduced the two in New York.

A Love Across Borders

The two artists met in 1946.

“Kahlo was 39 and in New York for surgery on her spine, when she met Bartoli, a Catalan artist who had fought in the Spanish civil war and later escaped from a concentration camp,” The Guardian explains.

Their love unfolded in Mexico, where Kahlo convalesced after her operation.

“From 1946 to 1949, while married to artist Diego Rivera, Ms. Kahlo authored over 100 pages of poetic correspondence in Spanish to Mr. Bartoli while recuperating at her home in Mexico City,” the Observer writes.

In one letter, she confessed, “From the little bed where I lay, I looked at the elegant line of your neck, the refinement of your face, your shoulders, and your broad and strong back. If I do not touch you, my hands, my mouth, and my whole body lose sensation.”

Some say he was the last love of her life. She even said she wanted to be the mother of his child. In 1946, Kahlo wrote to him: “If I were not in the condition I am in now and if it were a reality, nothing in my life would give me more joy. Can you imagine a little Bartoli or a Mara? Laugh at me, I give you permission since I am crazier than a cobra.” 

It never happened.

A Priceless Connection

The letters, previously unpublished, reveal Kahlo’s longing, desire, and vulnerability. The collection, estimated to fetch up to $120,000, sold for $137,000 in 2015. 

The letters are considered valuable because they provide more insight into the troubled artist behind the canvas. They shine a new light on the woman who defied convention and loved fiercely.

“My Bartoli,” Kahlo wrote in 1946. “I don’t know how to write love letters. But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you. Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of beauty …. love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain. You know, my sky, you rain on me and I, like the earth, receive you.”

The love letters went on for three more years.

According to The Guardian, the last letter of the collection is dated November 1949, and Kahlo writes: “I know you will take me with you some day … I am still your Mara, your girlfriend. Your love is the tree of my hope … I wait for you always. Will you come back in March or April?”

According to Artnet, the letters were kept in secret by Bartoli until his death in 1995. Then the 25 letters – including more than 100 pages, photographs, drawings, and pressed flowers – came to light due to Kahlo’s increasing popularity in the art world.

Yet, in the end, nothing came of their love affair. Kahlo died at the age of 47 in 1954. And the letters remained hidden for years. Bartoli passed them down to his family. It was their secret.

“No one here knows anything, only Cristi (Cristina, Frida´s sister), Enrique (Frida driver), you and I know the person who is at stake,” Kahlo once wrote to her friend Ella Wolfe.

At the end of that letter to her friend about Bartoli, Kahlo added: “Don’t forget to destroy this letter in order to avoid future misunderstandings. Will you promise that? “

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