AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As well-known as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is in the United States, only 12 of her works are in public collections here. Well, make that 13. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has acquired the first painting Kahlo ever sold from the family she sold it to. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has the story behind the painting.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Rhona MacBeth is the conservator of paintings at the MFA. It's her job to assess new acquisitions and get them ready for display.
RHONA MACBETH: One of the wonderful things about paintings is they tell stories, and they take you many, many places. And Kahlo was one of those people who - you can go so many places with her and with the works of art that she makes.
SHEA: This one is a portrait of two women. It's called Dos Mujeres - Salvadora y Herminia.
MACBETH: They were her maids that worked in her house during her childhood, we believe. We're still finding out more about them.
SHEA: They're indigenous Mexicans. One has olive skin and Indian features. The other paler with a gold hoop in her ear. They stand against dense green foliage dotted with fruit and butterflies. MacBeth says this painting takes us back to the beginning of Kahlo's career following a violent car crash that left her spine and pelvis permanently damaged.
MACBETH: Her terrible accident was in 1925. This is only 1928, and she really only started painting seriously after the accident. So she's 21 years old at this point.
SHEA: MacBeth says the two maids in the double portrait might have taken care of Kahlo while she was recovering. The conservator gently lifts the unframed canvas off the easel and turns it over to reveal signatures apparently added to the painting at a party celebrating its sale.
MACBETH: Frida Kahlo signs it. It's dated July 1929 which is the year after the painting was made, and it's one month before she marries Diego Rivera.
SHEA: Muralist Diego Rivera signed the painting, too, and so did the man who bought it, American industrialist Jackson Cole Phillips. The painting has remained with Cole Phillips' heirs until they consigned it for sale to New York City gallery owner, Mary-Anne Martin. That's where Elliot Bostwick Davis found it. She's chair of the MFA's Art of the Americas wing.
ELLIOT BOSTWICK DAVIS: I could not believe I was seeing this. She showed me the back and all the inscriptions and the fact that it had been exported from Mexico in 1929 and had been in one family. Of course, Frida Kahlo's work today is cultural patrimony in Mexico, so we could never really hope to buy just any Frida Kahlo unless it had been out of the country for a very long time.
SHEA: The museum won't say how much it paid for the painting, but the current record for a Kahlo at auction is $5.6 million. The MFA has been criticized for not having a more diverse Latin American collection. Museum director Matthew Teitelbaum hopes this new acquisition will help change that.
MATTHEW TEITELBAUM: Our dream was to acquire something by Frida Kahlo, who really was a pathfinder and a woman with strong political views that animated her art. And this came on the market, and everybody knew that it was going to be important for us and help us invite new audiences into the MFA.
SHEA: Frida Kahlo's Dos Mujeres - Salvadora y Herminia is on display to March 1, then it heads back to Rhona MacBeth in the conservation lab to try to solve some of the painting's other mysteries, like how Jackson Cole Phillips brought it back from Mexico in the first place.
MACBETH: I have a suspicion partly because of these little cracks here which are rather unusual and horizontal, and it may be a result of actually the canvas being rolled up and taken home in his suitcase.
SHEA: The painting will be permanently installed in the MFA's Art of the Americas wing later this year. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.