Pancho Villa, Oz and Guadalupe

Pancho Villa, Oz and Guadalupe

The life of painter, Candelario Rivas, is filled with fascinating tales of women including his wife, Pancho Villa’s, the Wicked Witch of the West and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Recently I was visiting a pal with the most extensive collection of faith-based art I’ve ever seen a foreigner collect.  The focal point was a painting of the Virgin of Remedios that hung over her fireplace.  She bought the piece in an antique store on Hidalgo over a decade ago.  On the painting was “C. Rivas, 1906, Leon, Gto.”   Those few lines led me down a rabbit hole of fascination about central Mexico’s, and Hollywood’s, art.

Candelario Rivas was born in 1877 of the feast of Candlearia, February second.  Candlearia celebrates when Jesus went to the temple for the first time, forty days following his birth and marks the end of the holiday season in today’s San Miguel.

When Candelario was twelve he snuck off to join the circus, attracted by the bright colors in circus posters.  When my brother was 22 he snuck off to join the circus with his clown act – Farmer Toone, his Wife and their Kid, the Goat.

By the time he was a teen Candelario Rivas was getting commissioned to do large scale paintings for churches throughout central Mexico, including those in Leon, Querétaro, Salamanca and San Luis Potosi.

When not painting, Candelario sidelined as a photographer.  Examining a graduation class photo he zeroed in a gal named Herlinda taking to cutting out her image and placing it in his wallet.  Months later he met her at a dinner party, showed he carried his image with him at all times and she married him.

During the Mexican Revolution, in 1914, the infamous Pancho Villa came to Rivas home and escorted (read kidnapped) Candelario.  It seems Pancho wanted a portrait of his new wife painted.  Once complete, Candelario was returned to a much relieved Herlinda only to be kidnapped by Pancho Villa again a few days later.  It seems Senora Villa did not like her eyebrows in the image and Candelario painted touch ups.

Speaking of touch ups, in 1921 the image of Guadalupe on St. Juan Diego’s cape suffered from a bomb explosion.  On the QT, Candelario was brought in to do some touch up work.  No documentation exists of the touch ups, but the gold paint found on her image ties back to the paint Candelario exclusively used in his other works and his participation has been verified by the assistant curator at the Basilica.  Candelario painted a watercolor replica of Guadalupe during this time that is still on display in the Vatican.

Then the Cristero War heated up (the Mexican Government versus the Church) Candelario took his family to Los Angles in 1923 where he spent the second half of his life.  However, churches in the US didn’t want large murals so instead Candelario found work painting celluloid goddesses.

His first big success was a life sized image of Paramount’s then top star, Constance Bennett.  You might remember her sister, Joan, from the campy and vampire-ridden 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows.

His big boost came from painting a Mexican version of Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Academy Award.  Her image enabled him to do murals in Los Angeles theaters and the future home of Walt Disney.

What he is remembered for today is this three days of work on the set of the Wizard of Oz, painting a three by four foot image of the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle used for exterior shots.  Candelario felt Hollywood was demeaning to his soul following years of painting of saints and Virgins and he declined future contracts despite earning three months’ pay in three days (a whopping one hundred dollars).

Candelario was also a dog person, often photographing and then placing his pooch in his religious images.

So the next time you are gamboling down Hidalgo, and view a painting by C. Rivas, don’t hesitate to own your own piece of art history around some of the most notable gals in both Mexico’s and US’ culture.