This self-portrait includes two images of the artist. The first lies with her back toward us on a hospital gurney, her head to the left, apparently anesthetized. She is wrapped in a white sheet except for her lower back, which is exposed to show two large surgical cuts dripping blood. The second figure sits facing us in a chair in front of the right side of the gurney.

The sitting figure is essentially the familiar Frida Kahlo of many self-portraits--erect, beautifully dressed in colorful Mexican style, and her face composed in spite of the tear on her right cheek. The difference here is the presence of medical paraphernalia. The upright Kahlo holds in her lap a large back brace, and she seems to be simultaneously wearing the same device under her dress. In her right hand she holds a small flag with a Spanish inscription that could be translated: "Tree of hope, stay firm."

The two figures float in space just above a lifeless and deeply eroded desert landscape. In front of them, at the very bottom of the painting, is the suggestion of an abyss. The painting is divided laterally, the left side ruled over by a sun and the darker right side (the figure’s left) ruled by the moon.


At the age of eighteen Kahlo was in a near-fatal bus accident that left her with injuries to her pelvis, spine, and uterus. The life she survived to live was full of physical suffering and medical procedures--and, of course, emotional distress. Many of her paintings address these things. "Tree of Hope" dramatically juxtaposes the severity and painfulness of Kahlo’s condition against her stoic determination to make the best of her life, even live it in style. (Kahlo’s friends often used the term alegria, or joy, to describe her spirit.)

The painting’s themes are complex. In a dark irony typical of her, Kahlo gives the flag with its hopeful words little red tassels that resemble the drops of blood oozing from the prostrate figure’s surgical wounds. Further complicating things, according to Hayden Herrera, is that (pre-Mexican) Aztecs’ view of blood was redemptive, and they would prick themselves with needles to stimulate healing--and of course Christianity has its own connection between blood and salvation.

Looking to other lives, "Tree of Hope" might ask, what is the relation between suffering and the will to go on in the face of one’s agonies? What is the connection between moon, night, and spirituality or selfhood? If the figure on the right could speak, what would she say?


Painted in 1946

Primary Source

Hayden Herrera. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (New York: HarperPerennial)2002, p. 192.