Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera
02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
When Frida Kahlo wed Diego Rivera in 1929, her parents couldn't understand what their delicate 22-year-old daughter saw in the garrulous, gnome-faced Mexican muralist. He was, after all, 21 years older, 200 pounds heavier and nearly a foot taller than she. "It was like the marriage between an elephant and a dove," her father complained.
Beneath their mismatched exteriors, however, Rivera and Kahlo shared a passion for art—and for each other—so intense it was beyond even their own understanding. Though they divorced once and wounded each other with multiple affairs—he with actress Paulette Goddard and Kahlo's own sister, Cristina; she with painter Georgia O'Keeffe and exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky—neither could bear to be apart for long. "Both knew just how far they could go and still go back," says Kahlo biographer Martha Zamora. "They were meant to be together."
For Frida, that was apparent from the moment she laid eyes on Diego in 1922, when he was hired to paint a mural at Mexico City's National Preparatory School. "I want to have his child," the then 15-year-old Kahlo told her classmates there. Three years later, those plans crumbled when a school bus accident shattered her pelvis and spine. The injuries would later make childbearing impossible, but the long convalescence they imposed inspired Kahlo to paint. And when she recovered enough to walk, she demanded Rivera critique her work. "Diego showed me the revolutionary sense of life and the true sense of color," she told TIME in 1950. Long after winning acclaim for her own surrealistic self-portraits, she idolized her husband and pampered him endlessly, even filling his tub with toys when she bathed him. "At every moment he is my child," she once wrote.
Yet for all the fire of their affair, it was tainted by the misery they inflicted on each other. Though Kahlo professed not to mind Rivera's near-constant infidelity, "every time Rivera left her, there's another painting with tears or gashes," says art historian Hayden Herrera. And when Kahlo died, of an overdose of painkillers in 1954, Rivera, who would live for three more years, was a "soul cut in two," friends recall. "Too late," he wrote in his autobiography, "I realized the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida."