death bed portraits, deceased dimas rosas, frida kahlo, memento mori, postmortem photography, victorian mounring photography
Frida Kahlo’s The Deceased Dimas Rosas at 3 Years Old
Death bed portraitures were a Mexican tradition. These works of art predisposed postmortem photography. The “Angelitos” were dead children who were free of sin. Paintings of these deceased children, usually between the ages of 1-5, were posed to appear alive. The memorial portrait survived the child; it was the only visual memory remaining. Celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo also painted “Angelitos,” death portraits of children.
Painting death portraits seems fitting for Frida, as she suffered physically and mentally throughout her life. At the age of 6, Frida contracted polio, a horrible disease causing her to walk with a limb. Further, at the age of 19, Frida suffered permanent damage to her torso from a bus collision. This accident precluded her from having children. In addition to these physical maladies, Frida endured an open marriage to famed artist, Diego Rivera; political upheaval; and periodic confinement in her home “Casa Azul.” Frida was well aware of death—possibly her own impending death at the age of 47.
Memento mori were paintings or photographs depicting dead people as if they were alive. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “memento mori” as literally meaning “remember you must die.” Although these “Angelitos,” or Little Angels, paintings celebrated the life of a child by capturing his or her death, the tradition is not related “Day of the Dead.” It is merely another reminder of how life and death are celebrated in Mexico.
The Mexican tradition goes back to the 16th century. It blends the Mexican tradition with Catholicism. Wealthy families would hire an artist to paint the dead children sleeping. It was popular; however, it was costly. Once photography became more widespread and cheaper, it replaced portraiture paintings.
In 1937, 3 year old child Dimas Rosas became ill. His mother, Delfina, was the housekeeper for Diego and occasionally modeled for him. Diego was the child’s godfather. When Dimas’ condition worsened, Diego tried to persuade the mother and father to take him to a doctor. Instead, they took him to a village witch doctor. Unfortunately, he died. Frida posed the boy in clothing to honor St. Joseph. He is surrounded by flowers, especially marigolds which are a popular “Day of the Dead” bloom. A picture of Jesus Christ as “Lord of the Column” lays on the lace white pillow. He holds a gladiola while resting on a palm leaf mat. All of the things mean something—they represent religious and cultural iconography. A lot of thought went into this painting.
Frida completed the 18 ¾ x 12” oil painting on Masonite, a favorite medium of hers. For some unknown reason, the painting was not given to the family. Instead, it was named “Dressed Up for Paradise” and exhibited in the Julien Levy Gallery in 1938. Next it went to the Art Museum of Philadelphia as “Boy King.” Then owner Somerset Maugham found out about the subject matter and gave it back to Frida. The painting was then given to Frida’s main benefactor, Eduardo Morillo Safa. He, in turn, gave it to Dolores Olmedo where it sits in the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. Currently, it is on loan to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. It is unknown when the name changed; however, it is based on the inscription Frida left on the painting. While Victorian mourning photography is plentiful online and in private collections, these postmortem paintings are difficult to locate. If given the chance, head to The Dali. It is worth visiting and seeing this incredible piece of art.
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