Mexican Muralist who Influenced FDR was an Amputee

Although it is almost a cliche’, “struggling artist”
accurately describes the life of acclaimed 20th century Mexican muralist
José Clemente Orozco.

When he was 15 years old, rheumatic fever weakened his heart. At 20
years, an explosion claimed his left hand.

José Clemente Orozco  viewed the loss of his hand as a gift.

José Clemente Orozco  viewed the loss of his hand as a gift.

© 2012/


“The truth of the matter is that I lost my hand when a child,
playing with powder: it was an accident in no way out of the ordinary,” he
wrote in José Clemente Orozco: An Autobiography, published in
1962, 13 years after his death at 62 years old.

His artwork is still admired all over the world. His murals adorn some
of Mexico’s most beloved public places. They are also to be found in at
least three American institutions of higher learning.

In his day, Orozco inspired African American muralists and moved
“President Roosevelt to put artists to work during the Great
Depression,” Frazier Moore wrote in a 2007 Associated Press story about
“Orozco: Man of Fire,” a PBS documentary featuring the artist.

Lure of the US

Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros were “known the
world over as…the Big Three” of the Mexican mural movement, David
Pagel wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “But back in 1927, he
was a frustrated artist whose ambitions were not satisfied by hometown
opportunities. Leaving a wife and three daughters behind in Mexico City, he
moved to New York to jump-start his career.”

Orozco wanted to be in the center of the American art market.

Mural painting from Orozco representing “el Hombre de Fuego”, located in Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

Mural painting from Orozco representing “el Hombre de Fuego”, located in Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

© 2012/Fabien Dany –


“In Mexico, his career had reached a plateau,” Pagel wrote.
“A market for portable works of art did not exist there and
state-sponsored mural commissions were entangled in bureaucratic complications.
In the US, interest in the Mexican muralists, most notably Diego Rivera, was

The change of scenery worked, at least for his life as an artist, which
was “filled with drama, adversity, and triumph” and is “one of
the great stories of the modern era,” Jacquelynn Baas wrote on the Internet website.

Orozco survived his heart ailment, amputation, “the carnage and
duplicity of the Mexican Revolution, the hardship following the New York stock
market crash in 1929, and rising fascism in Europe during his only trip there
in 1932, and emerged with an aesthetic and moral vision unparalleled in
twentieth century painting,” Baas added.

“A great ideological struggle is never a day at the beach,”
Jim Tuck wrote of Orozco on the Mexconnect Internet website. “Whether its
matrix is race, nationality or economic inequality, the fight of the oppressed
against the oppressor is always a somber affair. Nobody realized this better
than José Clemente Orozco.”


Orozco was born into a middle-class family in Zapotlan el Grande in
1883. In 1890, his family moved to Mexico City where he enrolled in night
classes at the acclaimed San Carlos Academy of Art. At 15 years old, he
contracted rheumatic fever, recovered and studied architecture at the National
Preparatory School, according to the nextavenue website.

A painting of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Jalisco Governmental Palace, Guadalajara.

A painting of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Jalisco Governmental Palace, Guadalajara.

© 2012/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


When his father died in 1903, Orozco had to quit school and go to work
to support his mother and two siblings. His jobs included hand-tinting portrait
photos of dead people, according to the website.

In 1904, the 20-year-old Orozco decided to earn some extra money by
making fireworks to sell on Mexican Independence Day. The chemicals he was
mixing blew up. The blast injured his left hand and eye, according to the

Because it was a holiday, Orozco did not receive medical treatment right
away. As a result, his injured hand developed gangrene. Doctors amputated his
hand and wrist to save his life, according to the website.

“Orozco viewed the loss of his … hand … as a gift,
liberating him from his family’s pressure to pursue a
‘respectable’ career and freeing him to pursue his dream as an
artist,” Frazier wrote. His amputation may have inspired another of his
paintings. “Wounded” shows two uniformed soldiers torturing a man who
is lying naked in a makeshift hospital. Next to him is a blind triple amputee,
Pagel wrote.

Fresco in the US

Some critics called some of Orozco’s works “blasphemous and
worse,” Frazier wrote. But “Jackson Pollock, after a pilgrimage to
Orozco’s giant fresco ‘Prometheus’ in California’s Pomona
College, named it the “greatest painting in North America.”

Painted in the school cafeteria in 1930, “Prometheus” was the
first true fresco ever produced in the United States. The next year, he painted
murals for the New School for Social Research in New York City, according to

The five panels of the fresco cover almost 300 square feet of wall space
in and outside the former seventh-floor cafeteria of the New School. They
depict scientists, artists, workers laboring, families gathered together,
citizens at a political meeting and soldiers marching, William H. Honen wrote
in The New York Times when the frescoes were restored in 1988.

“The murals, inaugurated on January 19, 1931, initially met with
negative reviews. The public debate that followed (in part due to the inclusion
of Lenin and Stalin, as well as the depiction of an African-American seated at
the head of the Table of Universal Brotherhood) drew some 20,000 visitors in
the first few months,” according to the New School website. “In the
1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, the New School administration elected
to cover the portion of the panel depicting Lenin and Stalin (Stalin’s
atrocities were all but unknown in the West in 1931) with a yellow curtain.
After vigorous student and faculty protests, the administration restored the
murals to their original state.”

Orozco’s wife and three children joined him in 1932 and he spent
the next 2 years painting murals in the Dartmouth College library. Called
“The Epic of American Civilization,” the artwork consisted of two
dozen panels. The Dartmouth murals were also controversial, but escaped the
unhappy fate of even more contentious murals Siqueiros painted in Los Angeles
and Rivera painted at Rockefeller Center. Angry patrons destroyed both of them,
nextavenue says.

On the other hand, artist George Biddle, a classmate of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, was impressed with Orozco’s talent. He convinced
the president that similar murals could adorn public buildings, Honan wrote. As
result, in 1935, FDR included the Federal Art Project in the Works Progress
Administration, one of the most famous New Deal agencies for fighting
unemployment. Across the country, dozens of artists painted hundreds of murals
in post offices and other public structures. Many of them survive today.

Orozco was still influential the year his autobiography was published.
“Orozco’s work helped inspire a new generation of Chicano and African
American muralists to reinvent public art within their communities,” Baas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.