The unnerving resonance of Diego Rivera’s Vaccination

OVER THE COURSE of the past couple of years, I’ve kept coming back to the image of Diego Rivera’s Vaccination. I can’t get it out of my head. The primary reason should be fairly obvious: This is arguably the most iconic and widely recognized artistic treatment of a subject that many of us have been reading, talking, and thinking about incessantly during the pandemic. But there’s more to it than that. If conventional accounts would lead us to expect mural art to be direct, didactic, and declarative, Rivera’s image is anything but. Its effect is subtly disquieting; it gets under your skin. Measured in various ways, the picture is both representative and singular, building on existing portrayals of the theme while pushing them toward the intensity, inscrutability, and even the sheer bonkers weirdness the topic has taken on for us today.

Vaccination is one in a cycle of frescoes that Rivera created for the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932 and 1933, adorning the walls of the museum’s Garden Court. The two largest, which face each other on the north and south walls of that central courtyard, most readily convey the project’s overall theme of Detroit Industry, with their sweeping depictions of workers operating machinery on teeming automotive factory floors. Myriad subsidiary panels, Vaccination among them, fill out the dense cosmology Rivera developed, weaving together themes of biology and technology, ancient and modern, life and death. Writing about his vaccination scene, Rivera described the “scientists who, through biological research . . . protect the life of the child against the germs of death that surround human life from its very beginning . . .,” thus casting his approach in a generally celebratory tone.

Just days after Rivera completed his monumental project in Detroit, however, the objections began rolling in, with Vaccination the primary target of the wrath that came raining down. Local clergy singled out the image, claiming their congregants were violently upset by it. They viewed its central triad as an unwelcome caricature of the Holy Family grouping of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, with the similarity of both the nurse’s white cap and the child’s nimbus of golden locks to halos lending further credence to that claim.As tends to happen with arts controversies, things snowballed from there. Petitions were circulated; public meetings were held. The resulting media firestorm spread far wider than Detroit—throughout the US and Canada, in fact. In the weeks that followed, if you had settled into your easy chair to read the day’s news in Okmulgee, Oklahoma (population 17,000)—or Hazleton, Pennsylvania; or Chico, California; or Regina, Saskatchewan; along with many other locales—you would have seen Rivera’s Vaccination reproduced in your local paper. The headline that ran above the image in each of those instances—“Threatened with Whitewash”—referred to the censorious destruction of the murals proposed by an intrepid Detroit councilman. As such, the brouhaha was something of a trial run for an episode that has become legendary in Rivera’s career, when the artist’s mural for Rockefeller Center in New York City (his next stop, in fact, after Detroit) was destroyed over his refusal to remove from it a portrait of Lenin. If Vaccination, along with Rivera’s broader Detroit cycle, was ultimately spared that fate, it nonetheless stirred up a similarly intense public reaction.

I don’t think it was just the image’s religious—or sacrilegious—undertones that had gotten under peoples’ skin, however.

Edward Jenner vaccinating a young child, held by its mother, with a man behind taking cowpox from a cow, n.d., chromolithograph, 5 1/2 x 3 1/2''. Photo: Wellcome Collection.

Not long after British physician Edward Jenner realized, in the late eighteenth century, that he could inoculate people with material from cowpox lesions to protect them from smallpox, artists and illustrators began churning out images celebrating his momentous discovery, in engravings and chromolithographs and even in at least one painting submitted to the Paris Salon. As a result, there is something of an existing iconography of vaccination: not one as dense and well-documented as all those Madonnas and saints and allegories of Faith, Hope, and Justice that populate the history of European art, perhaps, but still there to be sussed out if we dig just a little. Many of those pictures adopt a composition with three figures grouped at center, consisting of Jenner, a female figure—a mother or nurse—and a child being vaccinated. One or more cows are often to be found in the background, a convenient visual signal for the source of Jenner’s treatment.

The singularity of Rivera’s effort resides in how he borrowed from this preexisting model while transforming it. He retained the central group of three but moved the livestock from background to foreground, crowding them into the figures’ space in a not particularly convincing way (the horse and cow both look to measure only a few feet from head to hindquarters). The scientists at work behind the trio, meanwhile, have been brought in from what were often treated as separate scenes of research and experimentation, as in two illustrations from the British illustrated publication The Graphic highlighting Louis Pasteur’s development of the rabies vaccine. Those disapproving clergymen in Detroit weren’t completely off the mark, since one effect of all of this is to introduce more emphatic associations with the Holy Family’s traditional trappings, namely the three wise men and the animals in the manger. The visual prominence given to the livestock also invokes a linguistic link that’s less evident when we talk about the motif in English, for in Spanish—which is to say, in Rivera’s primary tongue—the link is much clearer between vacunación and its etymological root in the word for cow, vaca.

“Monsieur Pasteur’s Experiments for the Cure of Hydrophobia,” The Graphic, November 21, 1885.

For a good span of time following Jenner’s discovery, the smallpox vaccine was mainly transmitted from human to human, or arm to arm, in a procedure commonly known as Jennerian or humanized vaccination.2 The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the growing adoption of the so-called animal vaccine method, in which material obtained from cowpox or horsepox lesions in cows was propagated in calves before being used to inoculate humans. The shift to the animal model led to the establishment of vaccine farms, which allowed for the production of larger numbers of vaccine doses and thus offered a more profitable model, and which, over time, came under the purview of companies that oversaw the manufacture of a wide range of pharmaceuticals. We know that Rivera, in his tour of various Detroit area industries, visited one such firm, Parke, Davis & Co.3 In fact, one of Vaccination’s corresponding panels, a scene devoted to the theme of Pharmaceutics, relates to drawings the artist made at Parke, Davis, its central managerial figure reportedly based on the likeness of an executive vice president at the company.4

The cramming of all those different figures, animals, and pieces of lab equipment into Rivera’s Vaccination makes a sort of historical sense, then, given that modern industry had brought hitherto disparate activities—research, drug manufacture, the operation of vaccine farms—together under centralized corporate control. The very evident foregrounding of the animals, further, might signal not just their place in vaccine production but also their role as potential consumers of the pharmaceutical industry’s output. A list published in that same era shows that Parke, Davis was manufacturing a wide array of biological products for both humans and animals, including varied types of livestock—thus offering a prelude to our own Covid moment, in which masses of people have been dosing themselves with preparations of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin originally meant for patients of the equine variety.5

“Two Perfect Specimens of Heathy Babies,” Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1932.

One of the first news items reporting on the controversy about Rivera’s murals, and Vaccination in particular, included an intriguing detail: that the artist had gone to sketch animals at the Michigan State Fair, which took place in September 1932.6 Might Rivera have taken note of the judging of other specimens at that same event—besides the livestock, that is? Perhaps it’s too fanciful a connection to make, but I can’t help but detect a resemblance between the child in Vaccination and one Paul Guy Hemenger, a towheaded tyke who received a top 100 percent score in the fair’s “Better Babies” competition that year. Rivera could have easily seen the photo reproduced in the Detroit Free Press in which Hemenger, seated next to the prizewinning girl (fifteen-month-old Cynthia Hadley, just for the record), sports a quizzical expression not far off from that of Vaccination’s protagonist. Even had Rivera missed the coverage of those “two perfect specimens,” as the headline above the picture described them, the blindingly bright blond hair he gave the child in the mural is only one of many factors suggesting that he may very well have had US racial politics on his mind in composing his image. An adjacent panel on the same wall as the vaccination tableau includes the two darkest of the putative “four races” that provided a central, organizing trope for the cycle as a whole, while a comparison of the finished Vaccination scene with its large-scale preparatory drawing shows that Rivera lightened the hair color and skin tones of the child and nurse, and perhaps even Europeanized the features of the latter. In the finished mural, the nurse’s outsized doe eyes and dainty pursed lips give her an exaggerated, Kewpie doll look.

So does Vaccination, with its central protagonist rendered a lighter shade of pale, offer a satirical gloss on the benefits whiteness can bring?

Diego Rivera, Vaccination, 1932, charcoal and pigment over graphite on off-white wove paper, 100 1/2 x 86 3/4''. Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts.

Rivera explicitly framed his work at the time in racial terms; within a month of finishing things up in Detroit, he would publish a defense of his mural project as a celebration of an Indigenous art of the Americas that had been engulfed and at times obliterated by European colonization.7 But he was up against powerful countervailing beliefs. For other influential observers, the threat of inundation came not from Europe but rather from Mexico, the putatively unrestricted influx from which was described by a long-time Chicago Tribune health columnist, using baldly racist and xenophobic language, as “a menace to the old American seed stock.” Providing yet more context for Vaccination, that same writer—Dr. William A. Evans, a respected physician and Chicago’s first Commissioner of Health—argued that immigrants from Mexico brought with them the threat of disease, ticking off a list that included so-called pneumonic plague, amoebic dysentery, smallpox, and typhus.8

We know that Rivera had plenty of opportunities to take in the full force of such sentiments. As art historian Anthony W. Lee has recounted, during the artist’s time in Detroit he was caught up in a painful and wrenching episode in which Mexican autoworkers were expelled from organized labor and forcibly deported to Mexico.9 In the midst of the kerfuffle over the Detroit murals, one clergyman reportedly described Rivera as an “outside half-breed Mexican Bolshevist,” likely a reference either to his Jewish ancestry or to perceptions of his Indigenous heritage (or perhaps both), while one of the city’s arts commissioners, otherwise seemingly sympathetic to the artist’s cause, nonetheless likened him to a well-known chimpanzee at the Detroit Zoo.10 And he must have been aware of the vicious anti-Semitism of Henry Ford, Detroit’s industrial doyen and father of Rivera’s patron Edsel. The elder Ford had been the first to publish the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the US and had the dubious honor of being the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf.11

When I first set out to write about Rivera’s Vaccination, I thought its story might help give us some insight into present circumstances. Now, I’m not so sure.

There is an existing, long-time identification of the child in Vaccination that doesn’t clarify things but instead raises as many questions as it answers. One of Rivera’s assistants asserted of the central trio that the doctor had been modeled on the likeness of the Detroit Institute of Arts’s then-director, the nurse on Hollywood screen goddess Jean Harlow, and the child on Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., colloquially known as the Lindbergh baby. The last suggestion makes some degree of sense, since Rivera had gotten to know aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne through the latter’s father, a US ambassador to Mexico who had commissioned a mural from the painter. But it also underscores the abiding strangeness of the picture and its conception since, by the time Rivera painted it, the Lindbergh child was the most high-profile kidnapping—and, ultimately, murder—victim in the US, if not the world, his face splashed across countless wanted posters and newspaper front pages. (What always strikes me is how written accounts of Vaccination proffer this information without pausing to mention how downright bizarre it is.) And, if those identifications are accurate, then it’s not the only high-profile tabloid death sending echoes through the image. In the fall of 1932, which is to say around the time Rivera would have been working on the panel, Harlow was embroiled in a major news story of her own when her husband, a movie studio executive twice her age, was found dead in an apparent suicide. Headlines blared and gossip columns bulged with the lurid details of the case, including allegations of foul play, with one columnist calling the incident “the most shocking tragedy that ever came out of Hollywood.”12

A 1932 poster seeking information about the whereabouts of Chas. A. Lindbergh, Jr. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

The intimations of death don’t end there. A long, low element behind the central trio’s heads, easily mistaken for some nondescript architectural or decorative element, is in fact a dissecting tray laid out on the scientists’ workbench. The paws of an animal hang over its edges on either side, bound in rather macabre fashion. A glance back at those aforementioned panels from The Graphic suggests that this was meant as a reference to Pasteur’s experiments on rabbits in pursuit of a rabies vaccine, although the sheet covering the animal in Rivera’s picture leaves that identification ultimately unclear. In fact, death threads its way not only through Vaccination but also through other, related imagery in the Detroit cycle, from similar dissecting trays visible in Pharmaceutics to a scene in which figures clad in gas masks manufacture chemical weapons. Even though Rivera adopted an oddly cheery tone in describing those shroud-covered specimens as symbolizing “the sacrifice of useful, friendly animals,” he nonetheless still chose to include in Vaccination evidence of the kinds of brutal experimentation long seen as the price for scientific and medical progress.

I hesitated in writing those lines just above, knowing that, in the current climate, they might provide fuel for an anti-vaccine argument. When I first set out to write about Rivera’s Vaccination, I thought its story might help give us some insight into present circumstances. Now, I’m not so sure. The controversy over the Detroit mural, which lasted a matter of weeks, has nothing on our own constantly unfolding, enervating atmosphere of vitriol, division, and disharmony spurred on by the subject Rivera depicted.13 As I’ve delved into the panel over time, I’ve found myself wanting to come up with some overarching interpretation of the image, some way to make it cohere. I think most of all I’ve wanted it to offer me some guidance in, and to, the present. But I haven’t been able to find that in it, at least not yet. Maybe another reason I’ve kept returning to this haunting picture, then, is because the child’s expression—anxious, confused, beseeching—so readily mirrors my own experience of late. Sometimes perhaps the best we can do is stand stock still as the work of the world, noisy and chaotic, spins busily around us.

Northwell President and CEO Michael Dowling looks on as Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at LIJ Medical Center, is the first in the US to receive Pfizer Inc.’s Covid vaccine. Photo: Northwell Health.

One final note I can’t help but share: On the morning of December 14, 2020, the hospital chain Northwell Health staged a massive media photo op. As the cameras rolled, intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person in the US to receive a Covid vaccination. The carefully composed scene featured Lindsay seated at center, receiving her injection from a physician, Dr. Michelle Chester, with Northwell’s CEO standing at her other side. I’m pretty sure that none of those involved in orchestrating this timely bit of corporate PR realized that the tableau they had assembled, and specifically its grouping of three people, echoed that long-lived iconographic motif that Rivera had earlier drawn upon as well. But to claim continuity here would be to willfully overlook the marked differences: the presence of the two frontline healthcare workers—both women, representing communities of color disproportionately impacted by the pandemic—and the CEO sidling into the scene, making sure to get his time in the spotlight. In place of a cow lolling in the background, we’re given a backdrop that guarantees that any recordings of the event are branded with the healthcare provider’s corporate logo.

This more recent episode did make it into the museum, in its own way: Just a few months later, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that, to document the momentousness of the event, it had accessioned Lindsay’s vaccination record card, scrubs, and hospital identification badge, as well as the empty Pfizer-BioNTech vial that had contained the dose used to vaccinate her. At the time of this writing, the objects have not yet been put on view at the museum. Given how controversial and fraught these artifacts have become, one wonders what sort of display curators will need to assemble to tell their story.

This essay is dedicated to mis suegros, Susana and David.

Michael Lobel is a professor of art history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. “Diego Rivera Fresco at Institute Assailed by Pastor,” Detroit Free Press (March 17, 1933), 1 and 2.

2. José Esparza, Seth Lederman, Andreas Nitsche, and Clarissa R. Damaso, “Early Smallpox Vaccine Manufacturing in the United States: Introduction of the ‘Animal Vaccine’ in 1870, Establishment of ‘Vaccine Farms,’ and the Beginnings of the Vaccine Industry,” Vaccine 38 (2020), 4,773–4,779.

3. The logic of corporate consolidation continued to grind forward in ways that connect with our own moment. In 1970, Parke, Davis became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical company. Three decades later, following a monthslong hostile takeover bid, the board of Warner-Lambert, in turn, approved a deal to merge with another drugmaker, creating what was then the second-largest drug company in the world that would go on to operate under a now instantly recognizable corporate name: Pfizer.

4. On Rivera and Parke, Davis, see, for instance, Linda Bank Downs’s comprehensive accounting of the artist’s Detroit mural project in Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals (New York: Detroit Institute of Arts in association with W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 54 and 114.

5. “License No. 5 was issued May 25, 1928, to Parke, Davis & Co . . . for anthrax vaccine; antianthrax serum; antidistemper serum (canine); antihemorrhagic-septicemia serum; anti-influenza serum (equine); antiwhite-scours serum (bovine); autogenous bacterin; blackleg aggressin; blackleg filtrate; blackleg vaccine; canine-distemper mixed antigen; canine-distemper mixed bacterin; colon bacterin (equine); equine-influenza mixed bacterin; hemorrhagic-septicemia bacterin; hemorrhagic-septicemia vaccine; mallein; mixed infection bacterin (bovine); mixed infection bacterin (lepine); mixed infection phylacogen (equine); normal horse serum; pneumonia phylacogen (equine); rabies vaccine; staphylococcus-streptococcus bacterin (canine); streptococcus-staphylococcus bacterin (equine); tetanus antitoxin; tuberculin; white-scours bacterin (bovine).” United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Industry: Service and Regulatory Announcements (June 1928), 52.

6. “Diego Rivera Fresco at Institute Assailed by Pastor,” Detroit Free Press (March 17, 1933), 2.

7. Diego Rivera, “Dynamic Detroit—An Interpretation,” Creative Art, vol. 12, no. 4 (April 1933), 289–295.

8. Dr. W. A. Evans, “How to Keep Well: Mexican Immigrants,” Chicago Tribune (February 17, 1929), 12.

9. Anthony W. Lee, “Workers and Painters: Social Realism and Race in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals,” in The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere, ed. Alejandro Anreus, Diana Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 211–12.

10. “Art in Detroit,” Decatur Herald (April 10, 1933), 4; and “Murals Attract,” Daily News (Frederick, Maryland) (April 1, 1933), 10.

11. Alex Goodall, “The Battle of Detroit and Anti-Communism in the Depression Era,” The Historical Journal, vol. 51, no. 2 (June 2008), 463.

12. Relman Morin, “Will Tragedy End Jean’s Film Career?” Los Angeles Record (September 6, 1932), 1–4.

13. While anti-vaccine sentiments were not unknown at the time, I’ve found no evidence that they fueled the heated response to Rivera’s Vaccination panel.

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