Arts

MFA acquires rare work by Frida Kahlo

“Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)” is the only known work by Frida Kahlo to enter the permanent collection of a New England museum.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)” is the only known work by Frida Kahlo to enter the permanent collection of a New England museum.

Moving at what is breakneck speed in the art world, the Museum of Fine Arts has acquired a rare early painting by renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo — one of just 12 Kahlo paintings in US museums today, the MFA estimates.

Known as “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia),” the large double portrait depicts two Mexican women before a verdant backdrop of leaves, fruit, and insects. The little-known painting, believed by experts to be the first ever sold by the artist, had been in a private US collection for nearly 90 years before the MFA acquired it in December.

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MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum called the work “strong, beautiful, and iconic.” He added, “It furthers our goal of representing artistic voices from across the Americas.”

Museum officials declined to disclose the painting’s purchase price.

Although Kahlo’s popularity has surged in recent decades, works by the artist remain rare outside of Mexico, partly due to a 1984 law that bans their export. As well, Kahlo was not a prolific artist. Her works seldom reach the open market.

Painted in 1928, three years after Kahlo suffered a debilitating accident, “Dos Mujeres” predates many of the self-portraits that made her famous. Rather, the painting portrays two maids, Salvadora and Herminia, who worked in her mother’s household.

“She takes these working women, and she turns them into Madonnas,” said Erica Hirshler, MFA senior curator of American paintings, who compared it to a Renaissance work. “I love the idea that she was taking this idea from art history and using it to make these modern, obviously native Mexican women heroic. For me it really fulfills one of the things Kahlo is best known for: her celebration of Mexican folklore and identity.”

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But the painting, which was purchased directly from Kahlo in July 1929 by the American industrialist Jackson Cole Phillips, tells other stories as well. The reverse of the canvas bears an inscription that describes a “pleasant evening” with the artist. It’s also dated one month before Kahlo married the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whose name appears on the back of the painting along with those of Kahlo, Phillips, and several others who were in attendance.

“It was clearly a moment,” said Rhona MacBeth, head of paintings conservation for the MFA, who called the condition of the work superb. “This is a place where she was really settling down into being Kahlo, whereas in the earlier paintings you can feel her trying a lot of different things.”

Be that as it may, Kahlo, who was by then active in communist circles and intrigued by the various forms of indigenous Mexican identity, was very much experimenting. For starters, she used the German version of her name (“Frieda”) to sign the portrait, a spelling she later would amend to “Frida.”

Kahlo rendered the women in simple frocks: one ochre, the other blue. But imaging technologies have revealed that Kahlo worked hard to simplify the image, removing what appears to be an apron’s frill on one figure and a collar decoration on the other.

“A lot of these decisions are simplifications that make things less specific,” said Hirshler. “It makes the portrait a little more austere, keeping it simpler, more iconic.”

“Dos Mujeres” left Mexico with Phillips in 1929. The painting had remained in the family ever since — listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, but rarely exhibited.

“It’s a known picture,” said Hirshler. “People knew it belonged to Jackson Cole Phillips in the 1920s, but they didn’t know what had become of it.”

Museum officials became aware the painting was for sale only last November, when Elliot Bostwick Davis, the MFA’s chairwoman of the Art of the Americas, stumbled upon it during a trip to New York.

“It immediately struck me as just a terrific work for us,” said Davis, who espied it in an Upper East Side gallery. “I don’t think we could have acquired a more important artist for the Art of the Americas wing.”

Davis, who was accompanied on the trip by Hirshler, told Teitelbaum about the painting immediately when she returned to Boston.

The museum moved quickly to make the purchase.

“Moving in the span of less than a month for a work of this magnitude and importance is for a museum beyond a sprinter’s pace,” said Davis, noting it can often take years, or even a generation, to complete the transaction.

Teitelbaum said that there was strong interdepartmental support to acquire the painting, which formally entered the collection on Dec. 16.

“It’s wonderful to see so many people across the museum genuinely excited about a new acquisition — staff at all levels and in many departments have embraced it,” said Teitelbaum in an e-mail. “That includes curators in other disciplines who knew that their own acquisitions might be delayed to allow this one to move forward.”

“Dos Mujeres” will be on view until March 1 in the museum’s Carol Vance Wall Rotunda. It will then head to conservation for study and treatment before it is installed in the Art of the Americas Wing.

“It completes in many ways a great arc for us,” said Davis. “It states the nature of our ambition to fulfill the mandate we began with opening the Art of the Americas Wing. This work is an incredible exclamation point as we begin that project.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.
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