15 Things You Should Know About Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

istock (background) / Frida Kahlo (Painting)
istock (background) / Frida Kahlo (Painting) / istock (background) / Frida Kahlo (Painting)

Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo has been called one of Mexico's greatest artists because of her brutal and revealing self-portraits. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is her most popular, and also one that contains many tokens of her life and work. 

1. It is one of 55 self-portraits Kahlo painted in her lifetime.

Though she'd go on to make 143 paintings in her life, Kahlo was best known for her reflective self-portraits that laid bare the tragedies she'd endured. Explaining her penchant for the style, Kahlo said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

2. Its creation was part of Kahlo's coping ritual.

Bedbound while recovering from a grisly streetcar accident, a young Kahlo taught herself to paint. Over the years, it became her habit to paint a portrait of herself whenever she was troubled.

These self-portraits have often been described as surreal, but the groundbreaking artist answered such comments with, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

3. Her divorce prompted this self-portrait.

In 1929, Kahlo wed fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera. The couple's 10-year marriage was tumultuous; Kahlo and Rivera became notorious for their constant fighting and frequent infidelity. It's believed the thorn necklace piercing Kahlo's neck reflects the pain she was experiencing over this separation.

4. It was purchased by her ex-lover.

Rivera wasn't the only love Kahlo left in 1939. She'd also split from photographer Nickolas Muray, who purchased Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird when Kahlo was struggling financially.

5. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird may be blasphemous.

Art historians note that Kahlo's simple white frock hints at martyrdom, while the thorn necklace can be seen as a reference to Jesus's crown of thorns, worn as he dragged his cross to be crucified. The butterflies on Kahlo's head have been interpreted as symbols of her own personal resurrection, leading some to believe that Kahlo is comparing herself directly to Jesus Christ.

6. Its hummingbird is a symbol of hope …

Clearly painted during a dark time in her life, Kahlo shows her wish for love renewed with the little bird dangling from her necklace of thorns. In Mexican culture, the hummingbird is a symbol of good luck—but notice the black cat ready to pounce.

Kahlo's painting proved to be eerily prescient when she remarried Rivera in December of 1940. The couple's marital troubles continued. Of their love, Kahlo once said, "I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down ... The other accident is Diego."

7. … Or a symbol of war.

Kahlo often blended elements from Mexican and Aztec culture into her work. So an alternate interpretation of Kahlo's hummingbird pendant is as a symbol of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Perhaps the weight of this symbol, this battle, is what makes Kahlo bleed.

8. That monkey might symbolize Kahlo's ex-husband.

The monkey on her back—as it were—is frequently believed to be a symbol for Rivera. Some say he'd given one to Kahlo as a pet. Others suggest the primate symbolizes their tormented romance—after all, the monkey is the one tugging the thorn necklace tight enough to make its wearer bleed.

9. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is an ancestor to the selfie.

While the self-snapped smartphone picture is commonly derided as the product of narcissism, art critic Jerry Saltz has claimed selfies are just the latest evolution in self-portraits. 

10. It—like the rest of her work—has gotten more famous since her passing.

When Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, she was acclaimed in her native Mexico, but not widely known internationally. However, about twenty years later, Neomexicanismo art caught on. This surrealist brand of Mexican culture brought Kahlo and her gorgeous and provocative self-portraits into the spotlight. With each retrospective, her reputation grew, until her depictions of herself in pieces like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird became iconic. 

11. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird travels often.

Since 1966, Kahlo's cryptic masterpiece has called the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin home. But since 1990, the University has been generous in lending the piece out to other galleries, both domestic and abroad. It has visited Australia, Canada, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Mexico, and Rome, as well as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York City.

12. It returned to Austin for Kahlo's 104th birthday.

After visiting nearly 30 museums around the world, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird was put back on display at the Harry Ransom Center on July 6, 2011.

13. The self-portrait has its own rider.

A rock star in its own right, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird requires certain guarantees before being lent out. Among these is a personal courier from the HRC to oversee its travel, its own seat on a plane should the painting be flown, and assurances that the security at the destination is "stringent." Every time it returns it does so in a special vehicle, before being carefully assessed for wear.

14. The painting helped break attendance records in Rome.

In 2014, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird was displayed as part of a Kahlo exhibit in the Scuderie del Quirinale inside the historic Quirinal Palace. Over the course of five months, there was a massive surge in attendance at the museum, which averaged over 2,000 visitors a day thanks to this painting and its sisters. 

15. Today, it's featured in a garden show.

Much of Kahlo's work has been inspired by her barbed relationship with Rivera. So too have many of Kahlo's exhibitions, at which Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird has played centerpiece. But it's her love of nature and her green thumb that are the focus of "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life." The show includes a selection of Kahlo's paintings, as well as a dedicated recreation of her famed garden and studio at the Casa Azul, her home and constant muse. You can see it through November 1 at the New York Botanical Garden.