Paintings by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera Return to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital

Diego Rivera’s “La Tortillera” painting and Frieda Kahlo’s portrait of the late Leo Eloesser
Diego Rivera’s “La Tortillera” painting (left) and Frida Kahlo’s portrait of the late Leo Eloesser, MD, a renowned thoracic surgeon, have been rehung at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s new lobby. Photo by Elisabeth Fall

After a seven-year hiatus, a pair of paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera have returned to the new Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

During construction of the new hospital building, the paintings were shown locally and internationally, from the SF Museum of Modern Art to exhibitions in Mexico, Rome, Berlin, and Vienna, and were then carefully packed away in storage awaiting their reinstallation in the new lobby.

Both paintings were once owned by the late Leo Eloesser, MD, a renowned thoracic surgeon who worked at the hospital for 36 years. Known for his commitment to serving the poor and disadvantaged, Eloesser shared a strong social conscience with Kahlo and Rivera and developed a close, life-long friendship with the couple during their stay in San Francisco from 1930 to 1931.

One of Kahlo’s Earliest Works

One of the paintings, by Kahlo, is a portrait of Eloesser done in his home on Leavenworth Street in 1931. It is one of the earliest works by Kahlo, who was just 24 at the time.

Kahlo consulted Eloesser for chronic medical problems she suffered as a result of a bus accident she had barely survived as a young woman. In gratitude for their friendship, she painted the portrait, executed in oil on Masonite, that shows him standing beside a model sailing ship named “Los Tres Amigo.”

Eloesser later presented the painting to his good friend Carlton Mathewson, MD, UCSF clinical professor emeritus of surgery, who donated the painting to UCSF in 1968.

“We’re delighted to have Dr. Eloesser home again since he worked at the General for so many years and provided the kind of care that we want to continue to provide,” said Sue Carlisle, PhD, MD, vice dean of UCSF at ZSFG.

The painting by Rivera, entitled “La Tortillera” and dated 1926, depicts a woman making tortillas and a girl grinding corn. Rivera later gave the painting to Eloesser who donated it to UCSF in 1975. The painting is presented in its original frame, which was recently retouched for an exhibition in Mexico City.

Stipulated to be Displayed at Hospital

Both paintings were given to UCSF with the stipulation that they be displayed at the public hospital, or as Eloesser called it, “the old ‘City & County’ whose patients, doctors, students, nurses and help, from kitchen to the roof, had become so indivisible a part of me.”

For decades, the paintings hung high in the busy lobby of San Francisco General Hospital, little noticed by passersby. They now hang at eye level among the bold mosaic tiles of the new lobby, just to the right of the guard station.

“They are absolutely magnificent there and they complement very well Rupert Garcia’s design of the lobby of the new hospital,” said Carlisle.

“Not a lot of people in the community know about the paintings or where they’re from,” she said. “We’re having a plaque made to put beside the paintings that will tell their story.”

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