Art History Lab

What the Water Gave Me: The Symbols and Meaning Behind Frida Kahlos Iconic Painting

Frida Kahlo is a renowned Mexican painter who has gained global acclaim for her powerful and emotive artworks. Born in 1907 in Mexico City, Fridas life was marked by a series of difficult challenges such as polio and a serious bus accident that left her with a broken spinal column.

It is said that her physical suffering contributed to the intensity of her emotions, resulting in artworks that have intense emotional depth and powerful imagery.

Early Life and Education

Frida Kahlo was the daughter of a German photographer and a Mexican mother of indigenous descent. Her father encouraged her to take up photography, but she was also interested in other forms of art, especially painting.

However, her childhood took a difficult turn after contracting polio when she was six years old, which left her right leg disfigured. Despite her physical limitations, Frida was determined to pursue her passions.

In 1922, she enrolled at the National Preparatory School, where she met Diego Rivera, a muralist and prominent figure in the Mexican art scene. Diego was impressed by Fridas artwork, and they became close friends.

He later became her mentor, and they got married, although their relationship was marked with turmoil and infidelity.

Recognition and Famous Paintings

Frida Kahlos artwork is known for its intense emotional depth, powerful imagery, and the use of symbols and objects to convey deeper meanings. Some of her most famous paintings include The Broken Column, a self-portrait where she depicted herself as a broken column with a shattered body, and Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, where she is shown wearing a necklace of thorns.

Her artworks were often inspired by her personal experiences, including her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera, as well as her physical and emotional suffering. Her use of vibrant colors and bold imagery often drew from the vivid Mexican culture and indigenous traditions, which she was passionate about.

What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo in Context

What the Water Gave Me is an artwork created by Frida Kahlo in 1938, which depicts her submerged in a bathtub, surrounded by objects and symbols that evoke various emotions and meanings. The painting is said to be inspired by her personal experiences, including her relationship with Diego Rivera, as well as the socio-political context of Mexico.

Personal Context and Relationship with Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlos relationship with Diego Rivera was marked with emotional turmoil, infidelity, and creative inspiration. In What the Water Gave Me, she is shown submerged in water, which is said to represent her emotional state at the time.

The objects and symbols around her, such as the scissors and bleeding feet, are said to represent the pain and anguish she was going through, while the bandaged hand and a piece of cloth with blood are thought to be a reference to her failed pregnancies.

Socio-political Context of Mexico

What the Water Gave Me was created during a period of major cultural and political revolution in Mexico. Frida was involved in various political and cultural movements, and her artworks often reflected her beliefs and values.

The painting is said to be a reflection of the political and social changes that were happening in Mexico at the time, as well as her personal struggles.


Frida Kahlo is a celebrated Mexican painter whose artworks have transcended cultural and geographical boundaries. Her intense emotional depth, powerful imagery, and use of symbols and objects have made her a household name in the world of art.

Her personal experiences and the socio-political context of Mexico have heavily influenced her art, resulting in artworks that are deeply personal and reflective of the times she lived in. What the Water Gave Me is just one example of her ability to capture the complexities of the human experience through art.

What the Water Gave Me is widely regarded as one of Frida Kahlo’s most significant works, gaining recognition and acclaim in the art world. The painting was featured in her first solo show in New York in 1938, where it was met with critical acclaim.

The painting is an excellent example of Kahlo’s use of symbolism and surrealism in her art. The objects and symbols floating in the water around Kahlo are complex and personal, evoking emotions and ideas that are deep and multifaceted.

Themes of emotional turmoil and confusion are key elements in Kahlo’s art, and they are present in What the Water Gave Me.

Compositional Overview

The painting is centered around a figure of Frida Kahlo submerged in a bathtub, surrounded by objects and symbols that float in the water around her. The bathtub is large and takes up most of the canvas, with Kahlo visible from the waist up.

Beyond the rim of the tub, symbols and objects float in the water. The painting is rendered in great detail and showcases Kahlo’s skill as a painter.

Subject Matter

What the Water Gave Me is a personal reflection of Kahlo’s thoughts and daydreams. The symbols and objects represent different aspects of her life and experiences.

The presence of lovers, marriage, and political work are hinted at through the objects. The painting also references Kahlo’s chronic pain and disability through the bandaged foot and the scissors in the water.

The painting portrays the complexity of the human experience through a unique lens.

Color and Light

The painting’s color scheme is a muted and somber palette, with strong contrasts between dark and light elements. The brightness of the objects in the water contrasts against Frida’s pale skin, highlighting the tension between life and death.


The texture of the painting is marked by smooth brushstrokes, impasto brushstrokes, depth, and dimensionality, as well as roughness. The palette knife and brush strokes of the painting showcase Kahlo’s ability to create depth and texture that adds another layer of meaning to the symbols and objects.


The perspective of the painting is unusual, which creates a sense of disorientation and confusion. Kahlo’s face is turned towards the viewer, with her eyes closed.

The bathtub is rendered in a distorted, bird’s-eye view, which emphasizes the sense of overwhelm and vulnerability. Symbolism: What the Water Gave Me Meaning

The objects and symbols in What the Water Gave Me are rich in symbolism, representing Kahlo’s physical and emotional struggles.

The viscerality of pain is represented through the bloody bandage and the implication of the scissors. Mortality and decay are depicted through the skull, while the tree represents life’s worth and pain.

By combining these objects and symbols, Kahlo creates a powerful painting that speaks to the complexity and diversity of the human experience. In conclusion, What the Water Gave Me is a significant work in Frida Kahlo’s career, reflecting her use of symbolism and surrealism that were key elements of her art.

The painting showcases the depth and complexity of Kahlo’s artistic expression, as well as her ability to create art that is visceral and evocative. What the Water Gave Me is a testament to Kahlo’s unique artistic vision, her resilience, and her ability to capture the human experience through art that is both compelling and powerful.

What the Water Gave Me was a deeply personal and intensely emotional work of art that had different receptions among viewers. The painting was a brave expression of Frida Kahlo’s innermost thoughts and deep-seated pain, evoking different emotions from different individuals.

Varying Reception

The painting had an unsettling and disturbing quality that some found overwhelming. Many viewers found the painting too personal and self-revelatory, indicating the deep emotional intensity that Kahlo conveyed in her work.

Some found the painting to be an honest and raw portrayal of pain and suffering, while others felt the emotions depicted were too intense, making them feel uncomfortable.

Praise and Criticism by Art Critics

Art critics like Edward Alden Jewell praised Kahlo’s works for their powerful expression and deeply moving paintings. Others, like Clement Greenberg, were more skeptical of her style, describing it as a “kind of nightmare” and “symptom.” However, Kahlo’s work was unique and could not be ignored, both for its powerful emotional content and its idiosyncratic style.

Influence of Frida Kahlo’s Paintings

Frida Kahlo’s paintings have had a significant impact on feminist art, inspiring generations of female artists to embrace their self-expression and self-assertion. Her use of personal symbols and emotions was groundbreaking, allowing women to feel empowered in their artistic output.

Her portrayal of female subjectivity shattered conventional norms of beauty and raised awareness of women’s equality issues. Her life and paintings are a source of inspiration for many women artists who are seeking to break free from the traditional male-dominated art world.

Her influence can be seen in contemporary feminist art, which focuses on issues of identity, sexuality, and personal narrative. In conclusion, What the Water Gave Me was a turning point for Kahlo and her art.

The painting reflected the depth and complexity of her emotions, and the symbols adorning the canvas enabled her to evoke powerful and personal emotions in her viewers. Her unique style and personal subjectivity continue to inspire and influence contemporary female artists, cementing her place in Art History as a pioneering artist whose legacy endures.

In conclusion, Frida Kahlo’s artwork, particularly her iconic painting “What the Water Gave Me,” holds immense significance in the art world and beyond. Kahlo’s ability to convey deep emotional intensity through her work, using powerful symbolism and surrealism, has captivated audiences and inspired generations of artists.

While opinions on her art may vary, there is no denying that Kahlo’s artistry and personal expression have left a lasting impact. Her paintings continue to challenge norms and empower individuals, particularly women, in their own artistic pursuits.

Frida Kahlo’s legacy serves as a reminder of the power of art to convey personal truths and initiate social change, leaving an indelible mark on the world.

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