We often hear about the tragic lives and deaths of artists. Van Gogh, for example, lived a sad life. His adult years were wrought with heartbreak and disappointment until finally the death of his brother dropped the final straw.
The life of Frida Kahlo follows a pattern similar to those artists. While during life she developed a reputation as both a talented artist and a feminist icon, her physical and mental health declined as she neared her death.
Who Was Frida Kahlo?
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the work of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo was an impressionistic Mexican artist who lived from 1907 to 1954. She set many precedents for women, marrying a fellow Communist and becoming politically active in her adult years.
Posthumously, Frida Kahlo’s home has been opened as a museum. Her life was featured on the big screen when in 2002 Salma Hayek starred in the film Frida. So how did this cultural and feminist icon die? Let’s take a look at the life and death of Frida Kahlo.
Why Did Frida Kahlo Die?
In short, Frida Kahlo died of a pulmonary embolism in her home. Or that’s the theory, anyway. See, Frida Kahlo was deeply depressed at the time of her death. She’d been experiencing declining health, and it’s speculated that her death may have been a suicide. No autopsy was performed on the body of Frida Kahlo, and suicide has never been ruled out as a cause of death.
How Old Was Frida Kahlo When She Died?
Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico on July 6, 1907. Her parents, Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, had four daughters, and Kahlo had two half-sisters from Guillermo Kahlo’s previous marriage.
In 1929, Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera, another Mexican artist. Both Kahlo and Rivera were unfaithful in marriage, and they divorced in 1939. However, the couple remarried in 1940 and remained married until Frida Kahlo’s death in 1954.
Frida Kahlo was 47 years old when she died.
How Did Frida Kahlo Die: Part 1
Kahlo described her family life during childhood as “very, very sad.” Her parents were frequently ill, and it wasn’t a happy marital relationship. Kahlo’s mother was deeply, even fanatically, religious, and she had very strained relationships with all four of her daughters. Compounding the tense marriage of her parents, Frida Kahlo’s father was a photographer. He experienced success as an artist prior to 1910, but the Mexican Revolution caused his business to suffer.
Money was tight, relationships were poor, and Frida Kahlo was unhappy. Then things got worse. When Kahlo was just 6 years old, she contracted polio. As a result of the disease, her right leg was rendered shorter than the left, and she could no longer walk with a normal gait. She was ostracized and bullied by her peers, and chose as a result to isolate herself.
However, as a result of her disability, Kahlo’s relationship with her father grew stronger. Her father favored her, and pushed her to participate in sports like wrestling and swimming. Kahlo’s father also taught her photography, and instilled in her a love of art.
Unfortunately, the polio was only the first of Kahlo’s heath concerns. In 1925, at the age of 18, Frida Kahlo and her boyfriend were victims of a bus accident. Kahlo suffered near fatal injuries when an iron handrail impaled her pelvis. Frida Kahlo had been employed as a stenographer, and it was her dream to become a doctor. But the injuries she sustained in the bus accident forced her to give up these dreams, and instead she began to study art.
How Did Frida Kahlo Die: Part 2
Over the years, Frida Kahlo began to practice and perfect her painting. Painting was an outlet for her, but while she dabbled in still life, she is most well known for her self portraits. A later quote from Frida Kahlo explained this.
I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.
Slowly, Frida Kahlo began to gain recognition as an artist. But as her notoriety increased, her health declined. She had undergone several surgeries to repair her bone structure, but Kahlo did herself a disservice by not adhering to doctors’ orders for bedrest. By the 1940s, she could no longer stand for any length of time.
In 1950, another surgical attempt was made. Bone graft surgery was performed in Mexico City, but it resulted in infection. She was thereafter confined to a wheelchair. Kahlo continued to paint, and her success in Mexico grew. In 1953, Kahlo’s first solo exhibition was held at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico. She attended the event, but arrived in an ambulance. Kahlo was carried with a stretcher to a bed, where she remained for the entire party. This was her first and only solo exhibition.
Several months after the event, Frida Kahlo developed gangrene in her right knee, and her leg was amputated. In concert with her already failing health, the amputation left Kahlo severely depressed. She developed a dependence on painkillers, and eventually attempted suicide by overdose.
They have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself. Diego is what keeps me from it, through my vain idea that he would miss me. … But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while…
The Death of Frida Kahlo
In her final days, Frida Kahlo was bedridden. An overdose of painkillers, excruciating back pain and crippling depression were only intensified by her husband’s decision to resume extramarital affairs. Her last days were spent sketching skeletons and angels. She contracted bronchopneumonia, and on the night of July 12, 1954, Kahlo developed a high fever.
On July 13, 1954, Frida Kahlo was found dead by her nurse. She died at home in Mexico City, presumably of a pulmonary embolism. Her last words were written in her diary beside a drawing of the Angel of Death:
I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida