Roberto Montenegro, a painter, muralist, and illustrator, was one of the pioneers of the Mexican muralism movement after the Mexican Revolution. His early works show how Mexican symbolist art influenced him. Although he never openly declared his support for the movement, a sizable portion of his second phase of work was influenced by it. During this time, he also produced murals, prints, theatrical scenography, drawings for books and magazines, and prints in addition to the easel paintings for which he is best known.

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Roberto Montenegro Self Portrait in a Crystal ball_©

Early Life | Roberto Montenegro

Roberto Montenegro Nervo was born in Guadalajara on February 19, 1885. He began his formal schooling at a boys’ school, where he also learned how to draw. Félix Bernardelli, who ran a music and art school in Guadalajara and introduced Montenegro to Art Nouveau, was a source of disputes. In 1903, his father sent him to Mexico City to pursue an architectural education. In 1904, he finally applied to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. There, he made connections with several significant figures, including Diego Rivera and Gerardo Murillo, who would eventually have a significant influence on Mexico’s visual arts. Montenegro spent most of the next fifteen years traveling around Europe after arriving on the continent in 1905, stopping at museums, galleries, and other places to further his study of both ancient and modern European art.

Learnings and Influences

He first learned about Cubism between 1907 and 1910 while living in Paris, when he also encountered Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. He studied under Colin Cowrstuos in Paris for two years, displaying his work all along the way. He also visited Italy and London. After making a brief trip back to Mexico in 1910, he spent the remaining months of 1913 in Paris where he studied at the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and worked with Rubén Daro on a project for the Revista Mundial magazine.

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Vision of the Defeated_©

Upon his return to Mexico in 1919, Montenegro quickly got involved in the cultural initiatives of the newly formed post-Revolutionary administration. It is around this time when Montenegro’s love for Mexican native visual culture starts to come into its own. The wider goal of the painters at the time was to create a style that was imbued with Mexican or the distinctiveness of Mexican national history and customs, which is why this is the case. Montenegro became a writer and art critic in addition to being a painter. He wrote several books on the subject and was among the first Mexicans to advocate for Mexican popular art.

Style of Work

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Maya Women 1926_©

Montenegro produced art as a painter, printer, and illustrator, as well as some pieces for theatre and interior design. While touring Europe, he was exposed to a variety of Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and Cubism influences, particularly those of Aubrey Beardsley, William Blake, and Rubén Daro. However, a sizable portion of its aesthetic is also influenced by folk art and handicrafts from Mexico, notably clothes and religious artifacts from the nation’s southern region. He battled with painting’s classics and modern trends throughout his career and tended to switch between them, which earned criticism for his work. Montenegro frequently used the fundamental components of fantasy and folklore in his works. Although Montenegro remained interested in colonial, pre-Hispanic, and popular art, his latter works embraced an abstract aesthetic.

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Woman from Tehuantepec_©

In a magnificent picture, six women wearing ceremonial lace headdresses from the city of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca demonstrate the artist’s devotion to traditional Mexican culture. The ladies wear what is known as a huipil grande, or sporadically a Resplendor, which envelops their body like a cloak and encircles each woman’s face with starched white cotton folds. The solemn faces of the women in this image appear to confirm the idea that huipil grande attire was only appropriate for ceremonial occasions. It appears as though they are in a thronging procession, evoking the numerous religious celebrations and festivals that take place in Mexico every year, but because they are gathered together and each lady is carrying a small colorful bouquet, this gives the impression that they are in a procession. Montenegro studied the many regional costumes and traditions of Mexico for a number of his easel paintings and murals. 

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Roberto Montenegro (Mexican, 1885-1968) Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses_©

While having a more general interest in the indigenous civilizations of Mexico, Montenegro frequently returned to painting the ladies of Tehuantepec and their distinctive clothing. Montenegro produced more images of female friends wearing Tehuana costumes in addition to Rosa Rolanda, the wife of the artist Miguel Covarrubias. He also produced a series of unidentified Tehuanas between 1930 and 1940, usually depicting them with Pre-Hispanic masks or sculptures, to hint at the ancient cultural origins of his depictions of contemporary people and clothes.

Female wearing Tehuana_©
Female wearing Tehuana_©

Career | Roberto Montenegro

Throughout his life, Montenegro cherished his collaborations with a variety of authors, including José Juan Tablada and Luis G. Urbina, who both contributed to Revista Moderna. Jess E. Valenzuela’s Revista Moderna de México was the first publication he worked with. He started sending in vignettes and sketches when he was 16 years old and still living in Guadalajara. After arriving in Mexico City, he continued to collaborate with them up until 1911. He has published a lot of books throughout Europe. He produced twenty images in 1910 and published them in an album titled Vingt Dessins with a preface by Henri de Régnier. His pictures were used in a 1917 edition of Aladdin for kids that were printed in Barcelona.

He was inspired to go back to Mexico in 1921 by José Vasconcelos, the secretary of education, and he did so, becoming a pioneer in the emerging Mexican mural movement. His most significant mural may be found at San Pedro y San Pablo, a former monastery and school where the chapel is now the Museo de la Luz. The earliest mural to show the creation and demise of man was created in 1922 and is known as the Arbol de la Vida (Tree of Life). Resurrección (Resurrection) was painted between 1931 and 1933. Its geometric design incorporates some Cubist elements. 

Tree of Life_©
Tree of Life_©

Traditional Mexican culture informed Montenegro’s creation of two stained glass windows, La Vendedora de Pericos and the Jarabe Tapatio (Guadalajara dance) (The parakeet seller). Despite being a pioneer of Mexican muralism, he fell out of favor rapidly. His art lacked the dramatic flare of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who eventually rose to prominence as the movement’s leading figures. 

Before the Mexican Revolution, several of Montenegro’s first canvas painting shows were held in Mexico. He created images of fishing and other regional customs in this location, mostly in the Art Nouveau style. He started painting portraits in 1950 to make money, just as he had done in the 1920s. He also created four self-portraits, one of which features him in a concave mirror. Later pieces by him that weren’t portraits featured occasionally homoerotic masculine nudity. On October 13, 1968, in Patzcuaro, he passed away. The cultural world in Mexico and internationally grieved his passing in Mexico City.

Majorcan Fisherman_©
Majorcan Fisherman_©

References: (n.d.). Roberto Montenegro (1885-1968). [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2022]. (n.d.). Roberto Montenegro Artwork Authentication & Art Appraisal. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2022].

tojsiab (n.d.). Roberto Montenegro इतिहास देखें अर्थ और सामग्री – [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022]. (n.d.). Montenegro y Nervo, Roberto (1887–1968) | [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022].


Shivani Jadhav, a Mumbai-based architect, is attempting to explore architecture through words. She is passionate about discovering new perspectives on structures and bringing them to life through her writing. Her experiment focuses on the social, cultural, and philosophical aspects of architecture.