Above: Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary, 1892-1965), [self-portrait seated in Muray’s New York City apartment], ca. 1960. Photograph courtesy of Mimi Muray Levitt.
Imagine living every day alongside an important work of art. What if a painting today known and loved all over the world once served as the backdrop for your daily life, from family celebrations and milestone events to Sunday breakfasts and casual get-togethers with friends?
During the two decades after it was created, Frida Kahlo’s iconic Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) did just that. From the 1940s until Nickolas Muray’s death in 1965, it hung on the walls of the photographer’s New York City apartment at 230 E. 50th Street. Viewers of the Ransom Center’s video A Closer Look may have noticed a photograph of Muray seated in his living room, the painting a prominent part of the background. In its simple wooden frame and alongside Kahlo’s Still Life with Parrot and Fruit (1951)—also in the Ransom Center’s collection—the self-portrait was part of Muray’s large personal collection of art from around the world.
At the time the painting was created, both Kahlo’s marriage to Rivera and her decade-long affair with Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary 1892–1965) had recently ended. Rivera and Kahlo remarried that same year, and Kahlo and Muray remained good friends until her death in 1954. The renowned photographer received the self-portrait directly from Kahlo soon after it was completed, and the painting remained in his home until it, along with 102 other works in his collection, was acquired by the Ransom Center in 1965.
In Muray’s living room, the painting was witness to gatherings between a number of important cultural figures, including dancer and artist Rosa Rolanda (American, 1895–1970), her husband Miguel Covarrubias (Mexican, 1904–1957), and actress and fashion icon Anna May Wong (American, 1905–1961).
The painting, as a part of regular life in the Muray household, also provided the backdrop for intimate family moments. In a photograph taken around 1943, Muray’s wife Margaret (Peggy) Muray is shown smiling as she holds the couple’s young daughter Mimi in her arms.
Less well-known than her husband Diego Rivera during the first half of the twentieth century, Frida Kahlo’s popularity as a cultural figure and importance as an artist have skyrocketed in the decades following the painting’s display in Muray’s New York City apartment.
Today Kahlo’s self-portrait holds an important place in the Ransom Center’s art collection, as part of the Nickolas Muray Collection of Mexican Art. Although no longer part of the background to daily domestic life, the painting still invites an intimate connection with its viewers, and is today available for everyone to enjoy. We invite you to visit it at the Ransom Center and to make your own connections with this important work of art.