José Clemente Orozco
Mexican, 1883–1949

Oil on canvas
198.8 x 122.6 cm (78 1/4 x 48 1/4 in.)
Signed lower left: J. C. Orozco
Inscribed lower left: S. F. JULIO, 1930
Gift of Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1941.35
© Orozco Valladares Family.

Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919) became a symbol of the Mexican Revolution after his assassination. The charismatic Zapata crusaded to return to Mexico’s peasants the enormous holdings of wealthy landowners. José Clemente Orozco, a leader of the Mexican mural movement during the 1920s and 1930s, presented Zapata as a ghostlike figure who appears in the open door of a peasant hut. He is framed by a patch of bright sky and the intersecting diagonals of outstretched arms and pointed sombreros.

Given Zapata’s heroic status, it is curious that Orozco placed him in the background of the composition. The nearly six-foot-high picture is dominated by the frightened, oppressed peasants (for whom he fought) and the ruthless enemy soldiers. Menacing details, including the bullets, the dagger, and especially the knife aimed at Zapata’s eye, allude to the danger of the revolution and Zapata’s own eventual death. The painting’s dark reds, browns, and blacks, applied to the canvas in rough, expressionistic strokes, evoke the Mexican land and the bloodletting of its people.

Orozco painted this dramatic canvas during his self-imposed exile in the United States, where he moved to escape riots inspired by anti-Catholic murals he had created in Mexico City. Orozco later claimed that he painted Zapata, which was sold to the actor Vincent Price, to finance his trip back to New York after completing a mural commission in California.