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Tue, 11.22.1904

Miguel Covarrubias, Artist born

Miguel Covarrubias

*Miguel Covarrubias was born on this date in 1904.  He was a Mexican painter, caricaturist, illustrator, ethnologist, and art historian. He captured the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance in much of his work and his book, Negro Drawings. 

José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was born in Mexico City. After graduating from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at 14, he started producing caricatures and illustrations for texts and training materials published by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education.  He also worked for the Ministry of Communications.  In 1923, at 19, he moved to New York City with a grant from the Mexican government. He had tremendous talent but very little English.   

In her book Covarrubias, author Adriana Williams writes that Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and New York Times critic/photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to New York's literary/cultural elite (known as the Smart Set). Soon, Covarrubias drew for several top magazines, eventually becoming one of Vanity Fair magazine's premier caricaturists.  

Theatre work: 

He also began to design sets and costumes for the theater, including Caroline Dudley Reagan's La Revue Negre, starring Josephine Baker in the show that made her a smash in Paris. Other shows included Androcles and the Lion, The Four Over Thebes, and the Garrick Gaities' Rancho Mexicano number for dancer and choreographer Rosa Rolando.  The two fell in love and traveled together to Mexico, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean in the mid to late 1920s. During one of their trips to Mexico, Rosa and Miguel traveled with Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, who taught Rosa photography. Rosa was also introduced to Miguel's family and friends, including artist Diego Rivera. Rosa would become lifelong friends with Rivera's third wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.  

Miguel's artwork and celebrity caricatures have been featured in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. He immediately fell in love with the Harlem jazz scene.  He counted many notables among his friends, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.C. Handy, for whom he also illustrated books. Miguel's caricatures of the jazz clubs were the first of their kind printed in Vanity Fair. He did not consider these caricatures but serious drawings of people, music, and culture he loved. Covarrubias also did illustrations for George Macy, the publisher of The Limited Editions Club, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, Green Mansions, Herman Melville's Typee, and Pearl Buck's All Men Are Brothers.

Heritage Press, the sister organization of The Limited Editions Club, reprinted unsigned editions.  His advertising, painting, and illustration work also brought him international recognition, including gallery shows in Europe, Mexico, and the United States, and awards such as the 1929 National Art Directors' Medal for painting in color for his work on a Steinway & Sons piano advertisement.  


Covarrubias was invited by the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) that was held on Treasure Island "to create a mural set entitled Pageant of the Pacific to be the centerpiece of Pacific House, a center where the social, cultural, and scientific interests of the countries in the Pacific Area could be shown to a large audience.'"  Covarrubias painted the six murals for GGIE in San Francisco with his assistant Antonio M. Ruiz.  The whereabouts of the sixth mural, Art and Culture, are unknown.  The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific mural are displayed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  

He and Rosa Rolando married in 1930. They took an extended honeymoon to Bali with the National Art Directors' Medal prize money, immersing themselves in the local culture, language, and customs.  Miguel returned to Southeast Asia (Java, Bali, India, Vietnam) in 1933 as a Guggenheim Fellow with Rosa, whose photography would become part of Miguel's book, Island of Bali.  He also spent time in China, where his work was very influential among artists in Shanghai.  Rosa and Miguel returned to live in Mexico City, where he continued to paint, illustrate and write.  He taught ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. He was appointed artistic director and director of administration for a new department at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Palace of Fine Arts.

His mandate was to add an Academy of Dance, a task to which Rosa, with her dance and choreography background, was most valuable. During Miguel's tenure, traditional Mexican dance was researched, documented, and preserved, but this research into its roots helped usher in a new era in contemporary Mexican dance.  

In 1952, he separated from his wife in pursuit of one of his students, Rocío Sagaón.  He married Sagaón in a Catholic ceremony. Miguel Covarrubias, with colleague Matthew W. Stirling, was the co-discoverer of the Olmec civilization and died on February 5, 1957. His style was highly influential in America, especially in the 1920s and 1930s.  He shared his appreciation of foreign cultures through his drawings, paintings, writings, and caricatures.  

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