Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Collection Close-Up: Diego Rivera’s The Hands of Dr. Moore, 1940

One of the many significant works featured in the Art of the Twentieth Century galleries at The San Diego Museum of Art is The Hands of Dr. Moore, 1940 by Diego Rivera. At first glance, the work might seem to be by the artist’s wife, Frida Kahlo, for it includes roots, an inscription on the painting, blood, and references the female form, all familiar in her work. Rivera, however, created this work at a time when he incorporated trees and/or roots in his work and delved into the realm of surrealism. André and Jacqueline Breton came to Mexico City in 1938 and having the surrealist writer in such proximity influenced Rivera. This painting also demonstrates Rivera’s interest in the depiction of human hands, which he exhibited in several portraits, perhaps most notably in a portrait of his ex-wife Lupe Marín from 1938. The unconventional portrait of Dr. Clarence Moore in The San Diego Museum of Art reveals a fascinating story with local connections.

On May 20, 1940, Rivera delivered the completed portrait of Dr. Moore to the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City and received a payment of $650; the cancelled check, seen above, later came to the Museum with the painting. (The Mexican painter had a history with this hotel, having been commissioned in 1936 Rivera to create a mural there. He also often created portraits as a source of income. )

Who, though, was Ellis Moore, who signed the check? Ellis Moon, originally from San Jose, California, married Claus Spreckels and the newlyweds were subsequently given a home in Coronado, California as a wedding gift from the groom’s father, John D. Spreckels. The Spreckels Family owned local newspapers, a ferry company, and the Hotel del Coronado, among many other businesses. Ellis and Claus had four children and were highly regarded in San Diego social circles. In addition to businesses and their social standing, the family’s philanthropy is recognizable today in San Diego in the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park and the Reading Room at the Coronado Public Library, both generous gifts of the Spreckels Family.

After Claus Spreckels died, Ellis remarried Dr. Clarence Moore of Los Angeles in 1936. The announcement of their engagement made front page news in the San Diego Union on October 14 of that year. Moore was a well-known surgeon and the couple maintained residences in Coronado and in Los Angeles.

Several years later, the couple travelled to Mexico and commissioned the portrait. The accompanying photographs show Dr. Moore posing in Rivera’s studio. By coincidence, The San Diego Museum of Art’s other Rivera painting, La Mandrágora, 1939, can also be seen in the background, behind Dr. Moore.


Amy Galpin
Project Curator for American Art


  1. A few days before seeing this painting I went to an exhibition of Ramón y Cajal's original drawings on display at the Grey Gallery in NYC. Cajal delineated cytokinesis with beautiful drawings based on observations through a microscope. Certainly we cannot avoid comparing many of Cajal's neuron depictions as appearing to be trees. Made me question, what was Rivera's source material for the cells in the tree canopy? Is it possible he saw reproductions of Cajal's drawing in particular, or did he have alternate sources to draw from?

  2. The famous American singer Jenni Rivera’s eldest son michael marín riverawas just 20 when his mother died in a plane crash.


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