Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Celia Leiva Otto 7 April 2024 min Read

The story of Frida Kahlo is narrated through her artworks. She left an indelible mark on the art world with her emotionally charged and autobiographical works. Among her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits, and the first one was painted in 1926 when she was only 19 years old. Starting her artistic journey out of the necessity to fill time and as a means of self-therapy, it gradually became something much more significant.

Kahlo painted herself because that was what she knew best and, in those faces, she captured her ideology, her intimate world filled with symbolism, creating masterpieces such as Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX, USA.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX, USA.

Among all her self-portraits, perhaps this is one of the most well-known. In it, we see a serious Frida Kahlo, which is the focal point of the painting, looking directly at us – which is the way we usually see her in her paintings. Dressed in a white shirt, she wears a thorn necklace that draws blood from her neck, while an inverted black hummingbird hangs from it. Perched on her shoulders, two animals rise: to her left, a threatening black cat arching its back, and to her right, a monkey that, focused, fiddles with her necklace. Above her head, we see a headdress topped with two butterflies that seem to be made of glass. Each of them looks at two beautiful small flowers with transparent wings that frame the portrait. In the background, vegetation rises, its branches of intense green contribute to the piece’s iconic color palette.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926, private collection, Mexico City, Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926, private collection, Mexico City, Mexico.

Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress stands as one of Frida Kahlo’s earliest paintings—a first self-portrait that is also considered to be her first professional painting.

Context and Symbolism

Understanding the symbolism within Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, requires exploring its context. At the time of its creation, Frida and Diego had just divorced after being separated for some time. After a relationship known for its passion, affairs, and ups and downs, Frida was devastated by the separation. In fact, Diego initiated the process, leading to Frida’s emotional turmoil and solitude alongside a deterioration of her health.

Let’s consider now the most the attributes that immediately come to mind when thinking about Frida Kahlo’s artworks. Is it her gaze, always framed by her iconic eyebrows? Or perhaps her mouth, with its ever-present mustache? In this small-format masterpiece, Frida Kahlo condenses a myriad of symbols from her imagination, while she uses a very vivid and vibrant color palette and each element echoes her situation, providing insights into her thoughts.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Detail, Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX, USA.

Detail, Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX, USA.

Thorn Necklace, Hummingbird and Butterflies

Although Christian and Aztec elements can be observed in the piece, the main focus always remains on herself. Firstly, while the thorn necklace, reminiscent of Jesus’s crown of thorns, transforms her into a martyr, the butterflies symbolize resurrection. Secondly, the lifeless hummingbird on her chest signifies desolation after her separation from Diego Rivera and also represents Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Nickolas Muray, Frida with Granizo, Version 2, Coyoacan, 1939, PDNB Gallery

Nickolas Muray, Frida with Granizo, Version 2, Coyoacan, 1939, PDNB Gallery

Animal Companions

It is known that Frida Kahlo had quite a few pets throughout her life. These animals often make appearances in her portraits – to be more specific, they appear in 55 of the 143 paintings she created in her lifetime. In the case of this masterpiece, while we know that the black cat is commonly associated with bad luck and, therefore, its presence may symbolize the ominous shadows cast over Kahlo’slife, the presence of the monkey sparks various interpretations.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Fritz Henle, Frida in Front of Studio with Monkey, Coyoacan, 1946, Bentley Gallery

Fritz Henle, Frida in Front of Studio with Monkey, Coyoacan, 1946, Bentley Gallery

Kahlo had two spider monkeys: one of them was a gift from Diego Rivera, named Fulang Chang, and the other Caimito de Guayabal. In fact, monkeys appear in many of her portraits. While in Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, Kahlo usually portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. A few years after this piece, Kahlo painted a Self-portrait with monkeys, a much gentler version of this self-portrait where negative elements disappear to make way for a Frida surrounded by four friendly primates. In this case, the monkeys interact directly with her: they embrace and caress her.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943, the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, Mexico City, Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943, the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, Mexico City, Mexico.

According to the painter, these animals represent the children she could never have. However, in the piece at hand, the monkey on her back has a more negative connotation and is often seen as a reference to Diego Rivera. As he plays with her necklace, it suggests a connection to the complexities of her personal life. In any case, the monkeys are undeniably companions in Frida’s solitude.

The Lush, Confining Jungle

The dense jungle backdrop conveys both vitality and entrapment, mirroring Frida’s contradictions – a life brimming with vitality but constrained by physical and emotional pain. The vibrant surroundings affirm her connection to Mexican heritage and resistance against colonial forces.

Frida’s deep connection to Mexicanidad, a movement promoting indigenous Mexican culture, is evident in her choice of clothing and symbols. Beyond personal pain, her self-portraits also reflect the political and social reforms occurring in Mexico during her lifetime. Through her art, Frida voiced concerns for her country’s quest for an independent cultural identity.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird confines the essence of Frida Kahlo’s art – a poignant expression of pain, resilience, and cultural pride. Beyond being a form of self-therapy and a medium for expressing her pain, life, and emotions, Frida’s art served as a tool to forge a new identity.

Art, surpassing mere representation, possesses the ability to construct novel worlds through fiction. Frida Kahlo depicted herself, drawing lessons from her own existence, and sculpted a fresh iteration of herself in each of her portraits. To achieve this, she forged her unique symbology and vocabulary, now emblematic, crafting the image of a 20th-century painter who has indelibly shaped not only the annals of art history but also emerged as a symbol of womanhood—both Latin American and universal—and a feminist icon.

Bibliography

1.

Kahlo, Andrea Kettenmann, 2016, TASCHEN Books

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time

Recommended

Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

During his stay in the Saint-Rémy hospital in southern France, Vincent van Gogh created The Starry Night. It became one of his most recognizable...

Valeria Kumekina 24 March 2024

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, detail Masterpiece Stories

Ghent Altarpiece: The Charmed Life of the Mystic Lamb

Come with us to visit the Van Eyck brothers, their monumental Ghent Altarpiece, and explore 500 years of intrigue, theft and revolutionary painting techniques.

Candy Bedworth 21 March 2024

Jean-François de Troy, Diana and Actaeon, 1734, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Diana and Actaeon by Jean-François de Troy

Diana and Actaeon by Jean-François de Troy is a French masterpiece blending the exuberance of Rococo sensuality with the intellectualism of...

James W Singer 25 March 2024

Masterpiece Stories

Lost Masterpieces: Leda and the Swan by Michelangelo

Throughout art history, numerous works have been lost, leaving only the stories as a testimony to their greatness. Among these lost treasures is...

Javier Abel Miguel 8 April 2024