Born to a Zapotecan Indian family on August 26, 1899, Rufino Tamayo is one of Mexico’s most renowned painters. An orphan by age 12, Tamayo moved to Mexico City to live with his aunt who enrolled him in commercial school. He began taking drawing lessons in 1915 and from 1917 to 1921, he studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Tamayo was appointed head of the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Mexico City in 1921 where he drew pre-Columbian objects in the Museum’s collection. The influence of the forms and tones of pre-Columbian ceramics are evident in Tamayo’s early works.
Unlike other well-known Mexican artists of the time such as Diego Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros, Tamayo believed in the universality of painting. His modern style that was influenced by pre-Columbian and European art, caused him some ridicule by the popular muralists who thought that their “only path” in art should serve revolutionary ideals. Tamayo’s response was “Can you believe that, to say that ours is the only path when the fundamental thing in art is freedom! In art, there are millions of paths—as many paths as there are artists.”
Tamayo’s differences with the Mexican muralists prompted him to move to New York from 1926 to 1928 where he was influenced by the work of European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. His painting became a fusion of the European styles of Cubism and Surrealism and his subject matter of Mexican culture.
By the 1930s Tamayo’s paintings that featured intense colours and textured surfaces had become well known. He returned to New York, and stayed from 1936 until 1950, where he created a large body of work, taught at the Dalton School, and exhibited his work at the Valentine Gallery. Tamayo was also a prolific printmaker, and he experimented with bronze and iron sculpture.
Tamayo’s first retrospective was held at the Instituto de Bellas Artes, Mexico City in 1948. In 1950, his successful exhibition at the Venice Biennale led to international recognition. As well, Tamayo was commissioned to design murals for the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City (1952-53) and for UNESCO in Paris (Prometheus Bringing Fire to Man, 1958).
Tamayo and his wife Olga lived in Paris between 1957 and 1964 before returning to Mexico City permanently in 1964. The French government named him Chevalier and Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1956 and 1969.
Tamayo donated his collection of pre-Columbian art to the city of Oaxaca in 1974, founding the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. As well, in 1981, he and his wife donated their collection of international art to the people of Mexico, forming the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City.
Tamayo’s work was exhibited in group and solo shows around the world including retrospectives at the São Paulo Bienal in 1977 and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979. In 1988, he received the Belisario Domínguez Medal of Honor. Tamayo created his final painting (a self portrait), in 1989 at the age of 90 – Hombre con Flor (Man with Flower). He died in Mexico City on June 24, 1991.