El suicidio de Dorothy Hale (Suicide of Dorothy Hale)

Kahlo, Frida

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on masonite panel

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Feb-13-2000
  • Last revised: Apr-12-2004


The haunting eyes of a beautiful young woman stare directly at us as we witness the final moment of her plummet from a New York skyscraper to the sidewalk, a stage-like platform in the lower foreground. Her barefoot body and its shadow protrude into the inscription panel where blood-red lettering records the facts: "In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at six o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory [words apparently painted out] this 'retablo,' executed by Frida Kahlo." Though her blood flows from her morbidly erotic body and seeps through the canvas into the painted wood frame, the bright yellow corsage of tiny roses pinned to the black velvet dress on her intact, virtually undamaged body and face eerily insinuate vitality and sensuality.

Two stages of her fall from the window of her apartment building, as in a multiple-exposure freeze-frame photograph, are surrealistically softened by swirling blue, white and gray cloud-like sky coloring which covers the entire background and the rest of the wooden frame. Barely visible, in the top of the frame is the suggestion of an angel holding a banner on which [now erased or whited-over] was proclaimed "The suicide of Dorothy Hale, painted at the request of Clare Boothe Luce, for the mother of Dorothy."


I could not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend was patron Luce's horrified response. [Diary entry, quoted from Hayden Herrera, Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo (London: Bloomsbury)1989, p. 291] In the tradition of religious art, retablos, ex-votos, and votive pictures showing images of gory accidents and diseases--often inscribed with prayers and precise descriptions of difficult situations--were tacked to Church walls and provided a locus of mourning. [See Goya Attended by Dr. Arrieta, annotated in this database]

Contrast Kahlo's commemorative painting with 8th graders' wall murals of the brutal murder and funeral of one of their classmates, whose literal depictions and details of the horrific event "turned [the tragedy] around, creating order and beauty where there was once only rage." [Christina Schlesinger, "The Life and Death of Yusuf Hawkins," pp. 199-204, in Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity as Therapy, ed. Sandra L. Bertman (Amityville, NY: Baywood,)1999). See also Mindy L. K. Gough, "Remembrance Photographs: A Caregiver's Gift for Families of Infants Who Die," pp. 205-213, in Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity as Therapy.] The tradition of posthumous mourning painting and photography is predicated on the belief that the pain of loss is ameliorated as the evidence and memories are preserved.

W. H. Auden's poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts", annotated in this database, and the painting to which it refers (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel) would make other provocative companion pieces for Kahlo's panel. The tiny legs of the boy Icarus who fell from the sky head-first into the sea are barely visible. In the foreground of Bruegel's painting, the ploughman is oblivious or unaware of the catastrophe as are the other possible witnesses to the event in the ship sailing calmly by.

Kahlo's and the 8th graders' viewers are forced to take notice by the in-your-face frontality of the victims and the journalistic details of the compositions. "About suffering they were never wrong" is the first line of Auden's poem. What are the old and new masters and novice artists getting right about compassion, empathy and the human condition?


Painted 1939.

Primary Source

Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona