Frida Kahlos Spirit in Self-Portrait with Monkey

Total Length: 1594 words ( 5 double-spaced pages)

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Kevin Cliche

Barrie, Ontario, Canada


Self-Portrait with Money by Frida Kahlo was painted in 1938.  The work is an oil on masonite painting and was commissioned by Conger Goodyear, who served as the head of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (PBS, 2005).  Frida painted numerous self-portraits through her career, but this one depicted something unique about the artist:  the monkey perched just behind her shoulder represented a kind of protective spirit.  Frida herself has a look in her eyes that warns the viewer not to try to fool her—for she sees everything that everyone is up to.  This paper will explain the self-portrait and what its content, composition and style communicate to the viewer.  

Content, Composition and Style

In terms of content, Frida’s self-portrait with monkey communicates something important and special about the artist herself.  As Lazzari and Schlesier (2017) note, Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait reveals “the inner self of a unique, deeply feeling person” (p. 322).  It is not just the person depicted in the portrait that shows the personality of the artist but also the surroundings (the foliage, the monkey) and the style in which her hair is braided:  all of it communicates a message to the viewer and suggests something about the artist that Kahlo herself wanted to express.  The foliage represents her roots in Mexico.  The monkey—the symbol of lust—represents her spirit and free soul.  Her stern glare represents her unapologetic stance.  Zamora (1993) points out that the nature of Kahlo—her personality—is evident in this painting.  Although there is no secret smile playing on the lips the way one plays on the lips of Mona Lisa by Leonardo, Kahlo’s stern face and pursed lips do serve as a contrast to the full foliage and amusing monkey perched delightfully upon her shoulder, one paw thrown over the other shoulder of the artist:  in the image is the suggestion that Frida was being very still and reserved while posing for the public—yet she wanted everyone to know that her spirit animal—the monkey—was ready to play; and that her heart was tied to the land, to Mexico, to the people.  Indeed, Frida was one of the people and considered herself part of the peasant class, which is indicated by the way her hair is braided in the self-portrait—a common style worn among the peasant class (Lazzari & Schlesier, 2017).  Moreover, she herself had a peasant class type of soul:  she “was delighted by dirty words and phrases, she had a malicious, intelligent sense of humor that brought smiles to her lips, smiles that [ironically] never appear in her self-portraits” (Zamora, 1993, p. 9).  People remembered her for being “sweet and tender” and also for being brave (Zamora, 1993, p. 9).  She herself made no bones about trying to present herself to the world in a way that met the world’s rules and norms.  She state, “I like myself the way I am” (Zamora, 1993, p. 10)—and that is why in her self-portrait she is so steadfast, so focused, so zeroed in on the eyes of the viewer, confirming for the viewer that she will be who she will be—and that is all there is to it.

In terms of composition, the painting uses color to create an exotic mood:  the lush greenery of the background gives the portrait a vivid brightness that couples with the rich, dark blue of the sky and contrasts with the deep black of the hair and the monkey.  The whiteness of the dress is reflected in the white vines just over the rear of the left shoulder.  The full, dark red lips cap off the rich, vibrancy and full-bodied hue of the color scheme.  Blues, greens, reds, blacks and whites—these are bold colors, primary ones mainly—and they reflect the boldness of Frida’s own spirit.  In terms of style, the painting can be considered a work of fine art, as it was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to be housed among its collections.  Kahlo had already won fame as a modern artist and her reputation stretched far and wide—both as a painter and a person.  Thus, to have a painting by Kahlo was considered to have a painting of fine art.


I chose this work of art because it struck me as being a vivid and meaningful representation of a woman’s spirit that she unapologetically cultivated and presented to the world.

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 I was particularly struck by her eyes, which seem so daring beneath the bold, black brow over them.  For me, the painting evokes a feeling of strength and of total command and control of the self.  Frida may have had a lusty spirit, but she shows here in this painting that she was in control of it and not it in control of her.  She loved widely because she wanted to—not because she lacked control of her impulses.  She viewed her spirit as having a protective watch over her as well—which can be seen in the way the monkey holds onto her shoulder.  Frida stares at the viewer as though to say, “Do not try and take me away from my monkey—my monkey watches over me and protects me.”  The work does not have a personal significance for me other than that I can appreciate what she appears to be saying with the piece:  I admire a person who has a courageous spirit and is not afraid to stare another in the eyes.


In conclusion, Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey is a work that dares one to look back.  At first the viewer may feel shy or tempted to turn away.  The viewer may feel turned off by the boldness of the colors or by the sternness of the subject’s gaze.  However, if the viewer dares to meet the gaze of Kahlo, the viewer is likely to feel drawn into it and drawn into the wild, animal spirit hovering all around her.  She is calm and self-composed—but one can feel the electric energy pulsating in the composition, its colors and its content.


Lazzari, M., & Schlesier, D. (2017). Exploring art: A global, thematic approach. Boston: Nelson.

PBS.  (2005).  Self-portrait with monkey.  Retrieved from

Zamora, M. (1993). Frida Kahlo: Brush of Anguish. Chronicle Books.


Research and Reflect upon a Work of Art

Research and write about one piece of art from the following chapters: 

•    Mind and Body (Chapter 8)

Please buy the required textbook:  Lazzari, Margaret, and Dona Schlesier. Exploring Art: A Global, Thematic Approach. 5th ed. Custom version. Boston: Nelson, 2017. Print. 

Research Portion:

Write this part of the paper as a standard research essay. Include information about the work of art, the artist, and the context in which the art was created. 

Use some of the concepts and vocabulary that we covered in class to discuss the work. For example, you could discuss aspects of its content, visual form (e.g., composition, colour, texture), style (e.g., abstracted, surreal, etc.), whether it is a piece of fine art, craft or a work of popular culture, etc. Be sure to extend the information given in the textbook and in the lectures with research. Please note: you will also be graded on your spelling, grammar and punctuation. 

Make sure to write an introduction and conclusion for your paper.

Include a picture of the artwork and, if relevant, pictures of any other artwork that you may reference to illustrate a point that you are making.


After you have finished the research portion of your paper, include “Reflection” as a heading. Under this heading, write a paragraph that will be your personal reflection about this work of art. As part of your personal reflection, explain why you chose this work of art, what it evokes for you, whether the work has any personal significance, etc. In this part of the paper, you can write in first person.


You must properly cite all of the sources you used in your research paper. Be sure to include in-text citations and a Works.....

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Lazzari, M., & Schlesier, D. (2017). Exploring art: A global, thematic approach. Boston:Nelson.

PBS.  (2005).  Self-portrait with monkey.  Retrieved from

Zamora, M. (1993). Frida Kahlo: Brush of Anguish. Chronicle Books.

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