In the hottest month of 1913, the Stockinger Printing Company in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hired as a colorist and engraver a twenty-one-year-old Hungarian artist who had just arrived in America as a refugee with $25 and an Esperanto dictionary in his pocket. Having grown up looking in on the fencing academy in his neighborhood that only the privileged could attend — a separation the boy saw as symbolic of the antisemitism that swarmed his childhood — he had escaped into beauty, into dreams of seeing “all the paintings in the world.” In pursuit of that dream.
He studied color separation and photochemistry in Germany. He wandered the hallways of the great European art museums, absorbing the classics in the marrow of his imagination and growing especially enchanted by the seventeenth-century Dutch painters’ mastery of color and light. Like other visionary artists of his ancestry and generation, he fled across the Atlantic when the situation of European Jews grew grim on the cusp of the world’s first global war.
Born Miklós Mandl, he became Nickolas Muray (February 15, 1892–November 2, 1965) upon landing at Ellis Island with an English vocabulary of four dozen words and the unassailable determination to become an artist. Within a decade, he became one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of all time, doing for color photography what Julia Margaret Cameron had done a century earlier just after the invention of photography, turning a new technology regarded as a simple tool of chemistry into a medium of fine art and a portal to beauty. The soirees at his Greenwich Village studio drew such dignitaries of creative culture as Langston Hughes, Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill, and Jean Cocteau. He would live into his seventies and die a triumphant artist and a fencing champion, having competed for the U.S. Olympic team twice and having photographed some of the most recognizable faces of the twentieth century.
But none of his work would be more significant, to Muray or the world, than his portrait of one of the most original and influential artists our civilization has produced — the great unexpected love of Muray’s life.
Nickolas Muray met Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) in 1931 while visiting the prominent painter, caricaturist, and art historian Miguel Covarrubias in Mexico. Muray had befriended him fifteen years earlier when the nineteen-year-old former student of Diego Rivera’s arrived in New York on a six-month stipend from the Mexican government and instantly captivated the art world with his singular caricatures; Covarrubias had used the platform of his visibility to lift his friend, becoming instrumental in Muray’s ascent to recognition.
Shortly after Covarrubias married another Mexican friend of Muray’s, the photographer traveled to visit the enamored couple, partly to restore his faith in love after his bitter divorce from an advertising executive he had married a year earlier. That year, shortly after their wedding, Frida and Diego had moved to San Francisco, attracting the attention of the city’s vibrant creative community as much with their art as with their energetic and devoted open marriage. It was there that Kahlo and Muray first crossed orbits. Still, they connect and commence the decade-long romantic relationship that would eventually become a lifelong friendship only when she returned to Mexico alone and ahead of Diego.