Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

Frida Kahlo pictured with her work, Two Fridas, 1939 via Fridakahlo.org

Feature image: Frida Kahlo pictured with her work, Two Fridas, 1939 via Fridakahlo.org

Self-Identity Through The Lens of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

In a world where most top-of-the-mind painters are men—Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Leonardo Da Vinci—few spots remain for female artists to claim “Icon Status” amongst the masses. Frida Kahlo is one of the few legendary female painters who exist alongside talented and celebrated male painters.

But what did Kahlo do to earn this status? To be at the top of the list when Googling “Iconic Painters” requires skill. However, a distinct element of Kahlo’s paintings has ensured her fame and her legacy.


Vulnerability—Frida Kahlo’s openness throughout her catalog of work is arguably one of the main reasons her artwork is so highly respected. Kahlo’s self-portraits communicate an openness that allows her audience a glimpse of her self-identity journey.

Born to a German-Hungarian father and a Mexican mother of Native American descent, Kahlo experienced a juxtaposition in heritage from the start; she painted this contrast in many self-portraits. As a child, she suffered from polio, leaving her body “irregular” compared to other kids her age. For the rest of her life, Frida had a permanent limp. At 18, she got into a bus accident that broke most of her bones, resulting in a series of surgeries to reconfigure her body. As Frida matured despite severe trauma and strife, she experienced a wavering, nonlinear journey of self-actualization. 

Frida Kahlo, Two Fridas, 1939 via Fridakahlo.org
Frida Kahlo, Two Fridas, 1939 via Fridakahlo.org

At 22, Frida married fellow artist Diego Rivera—who was twice her age— while still a student. Even disregarding their age gap, this marriage was doomed from the start. Rivera had just divorced his third wife and laid eyes on teenaged Frida in 1922 while painting his first significant mural, Creation, in Mexico City. Frida embraced the traditional grace of a Mexican wife; her personal and artistic style evolved during her marriage. She wore traditional dresses, flowers, and bright colors. By the mid-1930s, they divorced after enduring multiple affairs from both parties. They remarried only a few months later and remained married until she died in 1954.

The series of events leading up to Frida’s death undoubtedly impacted the way she viewed herself physically and psychologically. She captured this devastating and powerful evolution through her self-portraits. 

“Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress” (1926)

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

This painting marks Kahlo’s first official self-portrait in her artistic career. Love is also a constant theme portrayed in her artwork. Nineteen-year-old Frida created Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress hoping to gain her lover Alejandro’s affection. While this piece accurately represented her appearance, Frida accentuated certain features, like her neck, to look royal-esque. The velvet dress, a traditionally expensive textile, has a deep V neckline and visible breasts. Fortunately for Frida, her efforts to lure Alejandro’s affection were successful until his parents discovered their rekindled relationship, ultimately ending it permanently.

“My Birth” (1932)

My Birth, 1932. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
My Birth, 1932. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

During Frida’s marriage to Diego, she endured multiple miscarriages. This trauma can imprint a person physically and mentally for a lifetime. To cope with the hardships she faced during this period and numerous other times in her life, she resorted to painting her pain. My Birth is one of her many paintings highlighting her vulnerability throughout her career.


While not strictly labeled a self-portrait, “My Birth” features Frida’s grown head and a baby body coming out of a faceless woman. She noted in her journal that this painting depicts how she imagined being born. It is no coincidence that she created this painting while simultaneously suffering miscarriages. The puddle of blood on the bedsheet points to the complications she was enduring behind closed doors. Above the bed is a weeping “Our Lady of Sorrows”—a religious iconography depicting the Virgin Mary. Frida’s version of the Lady is in distress, likely looking over the faceless woman giving a painful birth.


Pregnancy complications take an indescribable mental toll. Sometimes, this tragedy causes the pregnant person to question their body’s capabilities to produce life—traditionally a woman’s sole purpose. Frida illustrates her treacherous relationship with femininity in various paintings over the years.

“Self Portrait with Cropped Hair” (1940)

Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
Self Portrait with Cropped Hair , 1940. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

Deemed one of her most famous paintings, Self Portrait with Cropped Hair symbolizes gender identity and breaking gender normalities. In 1939, Frida divorced Diego Rivera after discovering he was having an affair with her sister. She soon painted this iconic piece following the separation.


Experiencing this level of betrayal disorders one’s identity and confidence—especially when it involves your husband cheating on you with your sister. Subsequently, Frida took it upon herself to chop her hair off for a fresh start—a common practice post-breakup. Her hair held significant meaning to Diego; he loved her long hair. To cut it entirely off symbolized her cutting him out of her life. Above her is a line of music notes and lyrics, “See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore,” scornfully referring to his obsession with her hair.


Sitting on a chair surrounded by cut hair strands, Frida wears a baggy suit and button-up collared shirt. Before Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, her self-portraits portrayed her femininity with flowers, jewelry, dresses, and a rouge lip. This painting starkly contrasts how she viewed herself before the divorce. The only pieces of her original identity are her earrings and heeled shoes. Her divorce from Diego and the cutting of her hair marked her new journey of independence and living in a world independent of men.

“Self Portrait with Braid” (1941)

Self Portrait with Braid, 1941. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
Self Portrait with Braid , 1941. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

Sometimes, getting back together with your ex is inevitable—even when publicly declaring you no longer need that person. About a year after she created Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, Frida and Diego remarried. Her hair is undoubtedly a symbol of her femininity; Self Portrait with Braid is the comeback piece declaring her rejuvenated relationship with Diego. Compared to her previous painting with short hair and androgynous features, including a baggy men’s suit, this painting revisits Frida’s original style: dresses, long hair, jewelry, exposed skin, and long hair. Her revived relationship with Diego and display of femininity is likely no coincidence. With Diego, she embraced her womanhood. She felt confident in her looks. Her exposed skin points to sensuality and confidence in her skin. This choice is hers, of course, but it is worth noting that this reclamation of femininity coincided with her remarriage. During her divorce, her identity slipped into a middle ground of androgyny and masculinity, leaving her femininity at the door of divorce. However, in this relationship, Frida was outwardly feminine and embraced the traditional features of womanhood, such as her long hair. The braid featured in this painting is shaped into an infinity symbol, pointing to her and Diego’s eternal love, regardless of the trials and tribulations of divorce.

“The Broken Column” (1944)

The Broken Column, 1944. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
The Broken Column, 1944. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

At 18, Frida endured a traumatic bus accident that left her bones shattered. After a series of surgeries, doctors were able to fix her bones, but they could never cure her psychological trauma. The Broken Column visualizes her identification with her physical body, even decades after the accident. She may have been physically mended but was internally broken.


The column supporting her body upright represents her spine. The cracks throughout the column point to the instability of her body—a collapse that was always possible. However, she has a corset-like structure holding her naked body upright, something she wore for 14 years to help with her spinal issues. After undergoing an unsuccessful surgery in the 1940s in New York, her spinal health continued to decline, resulting in more surgeries to help strengthen her back.


Her bare torso and exposed breasts point to the strength, power, and confidence she cultivated over time. Alternatively, Frida’s face is emotionless but painted with tears streaming down her face. She exudes a powerful external persona. Internally, she feels broken and forlorn. The nails penetrating her skin symbolize how previous repairs still hold Frida together.


In line with her surreal style, the background depicts a desolate scene and dark sky. This desolation mirrors how she felt throughout much of her life. Frida was never like the other girls her age. From the start, she developed a permanent limp from polio, broke most bones in her body, and got cheated on by her lover, 20 years her senior, with her sister. Repeated traumatic events are grounds for isolation and loneliness. The Broken Column is a visualization of Frida’s identity with her body and the trauma she endured physically.

“Self Portrait with Stalin” (1954)

Self Portrait with Stalin, 1954. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
Self Portrait with Stalin, 1954. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.  

Frida’s 1954 painting Self Portrait with Stalin is her last self-portrait before she died in July 1954. Around this time, communism reached peak notoriety in the West, synonymous with Joseph Stalin, a politician and Soviet Union leader. Frida idolized Stalin, for she was an outspoken communist, especially in the late 1940s. This painting captures her sitting with an oversized portrait of Stalin. The portrait of the communist leader is significantly larger than her; this is no coincidence. She looked up to Stalin and viewed him as a crucial part of the communist movement. His face is intricately detailed, while Frida’s face is barely legible, likely pointing to how she viewed their relative importance.


Sometimes, our idols are never who we want them to be. There’s a reason “Never meet your hero” is a famous saying.


After discovering the affair between Frida and communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the late 1930s, Stalin ordered Trotsky’s murder. Luckily, Kahlo and Trotsky escaped to America before Stalin could fulfill his order. In 1940, Stalin succeeded in finally killing Trotsky, and Frida moved back to Mexico City to spend her final years with Diego Rivera. During this time, Frida’s health declined significantly. She had her leg amputated due to gangrene and spent the rest of her time on painkillers and suffering from crippling depression. In her last year of life, Frida painted Self Portrait with Stalin out of spite while delirious and high on painkillers. She likely reminisced about her life and those whom she loved.

Viva la Vida, Watermelons, 1954, her last painting before death. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.
Viva la Vida, Watermelons, 1954, her last painting before death. Photo courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.

Frida Kahlo died on August 21, 1954, in her Mexico City home, officially from a pulmonary embolism. However, her death is quite controversial; biographer Hayden Herrera, among others, claims Kahlo committed suicide. The nurse in charge of Kahlo stated she took an overdose of pills the night she died.


Everything leading up to her death—back surgeries, amputations, heartbreaks—was depicted in her artwork. Her vulnerability is globally recognized and rightfully praised. Her paintings exemplify how self-identification evolves alongside significant life events and trauma. Decades later, her art continues to move viewers around the world deeply, providing those who are broken—visibly or otherwise— with an outlet to feel seen.


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