Julio de Diego

Julio de Diego, Homage of the 

Spanish Republic

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Julio de Diego crafted a formidable persona within the artistic developments and political struggles of his time. The artist characterized his own work as “lyrical,” explaining, “through the years, the surrealists, the social-conscious painters and the others tried to adopt me, but I went my own way, good, bad or indifferent.” 1His independence manifested early in life when de Diego left his parent’s home in Madrid, Spain, in adolescence following his father’s attempts to curtail his artistic aspirations. At the age of fifteen he held his first exhibition, set up within a gambling casino. He managed to acquire an apprenticeship in a studio producing scenery for Madrid’s operas, but moved from behind the curtains to the stage, trying his hand at acting and performing as an extra in the Ballet Russes’ Petrouchka with Nijinsky. He spent several years in the Spanish army, including a six-month stretch in the Rif War of 1920 in Northern Africa. His artistic career pushed ahead as he set off for Paris and became familiar with modernism’s forays into abstraction, surrealism, and cubism.

De Diego arrived in the U.S. in 1924 and settled in Chicago two years later. The artist established himself with a commission for the decoration of two chapels in St. Gregory’s Church. He also worked in fashion illustration, designed magazine covers, and developed a popular laundry bag for the Hotel Sherman. De Diego began exhibiting through the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929, and participated in the annual Chicago Artists Exhibitions, Annual American Exhibitions, and International Water Color Exhibitions. He held a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 1935. Though the artist’s career was advancing, his family life had deteriorated. In 1932 his first marriage dissolved, and the couple’s young daughter Kiriki was sent to live with friend Paul Hoffman. 

De Diego continued to develop his artistic vocabulary with a growing interest in Mexican art. He traveled throughout the country acquainting himself with the works of muralists such as Carlos Merida, and also began a collection of small native artifacts. While in Mexico, de Diego made a living designing costumes and scenery for ballets. His talents continued to expand as he moved into book illustration, and his work in jewelry making was incorporated into the 1946 Modern Handmade Jewelry exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. He remarried in 1948, becoming the third husband of Gypsy Rose Lee. The following year the two joined the traveling carnival Royal American Shows. While Gypsy worked as a performer, de Diego developed a show for the carnival using surrealist murals and the performance of Freudian themes. After three years of separation, the couple divorced in Reno, Nevada, and de Diego eventually settled in California.

De Diego’s continued to impact the world of fine art as he produced interpretive representations of current events in an assortment of techniques. He notably worked in the Renaissance method of “velatura,” building up to as many as forty glazes of oil in each painting. He also commonly worked within gouache, graphite, and mixed media. The themes of his work were as broad in scope as the mediums he worked in, moving from surrealist and folk compositions to self-portraits and politically engaged subjects. In the time spent working for the Works Progress Administration, de Diego produced murals of landscapes and street scenes. Afterwards he pushed away from such brands of realism, asserting, “you can’t transfer nature to canvas, you have to re-invent it.” 2His paintings of current and historical subjects became constructions both of the artist’s opinion of the facts and his vision of alternate realities. He reacted to natural disasters, produced works on World War II in a manner echoing Goya’s Disasters of War, explored the theme of atomic energy, and commented on the impact of the Cold War. His 1962 Armada series paralleled the use of technology in past and present conflict and explored the notion of defeat. The works played on apocalyptic fears of the Cold War period by invoking the infamous tragedy of the Anglo-Spanish War as well as the ultimate survival of both sides. De Diego expanded his political impact beyond the exhibition of these works, and began voicing opposition to Franco and the rise of fascism. He was a strong supporter of the radical American Artist’s Congress, which spoke in opposition to censorship and the curtailing of rights in Italy and Germany. During these years de Diego also became a teacher and took up positions at the University of Denver and the Artist Equity Workshop.

De Diego settled in the artists’ colony of Sarasota, Florida, in the late sixties and remained there until his death on August 22, 1979. Reports of his years there recounted him as an animate character who entertained with tales of past encounters with famed Surrealists Andre Breton and Max Enrst, the artist Man Ray and influential Peggy Guggenheim. De Diego continued to expand his repertoire by producing the educational film Julio de Diego—Painting in Egg Tempera with the help of local resident Jay Starker. Throughout his years, life and art remained codependent entities within the artist, who noted, “A painting is not what it is, but the memory that we have a life.” 3Julio de Diego’s works capture the sweeping vision, ambition, and passion of a curious and multifaceted artist.

Written and compiled by Zenobia Grant Wingate

1 Peri Tucker, "Artist at Large: Julio de Diego and his worldly-wise works of art." (St. Petersburg Times, April 1, 1962), page 8.
2 Ibid.
3 Marcia Corbino, "A Journey With Julio De Diego 1900-1979."

Julio de Diego, Homage to the Spanish Republic
Julio de Diego, Blueprint of the Future
Julio de Diego, Altitude 2000 Departure
Julio de Diego, St. Atomic
Julio de Diego, Ceremonial Dancers
Julio de Diego, Tlaloc and the Tiger
Julio de Diego, Trojan Horse
Julio de Diego, The Magician

1900 Julio de Diego born in Madrid, Spain on the 9th of May
1924 Immigrates to the United States
1926 Moves to Chicago
1928 Birth of daughter Kiriki
1932 End of first marriage, Kiriki raised by friend Paul Hoffman
1939 Taught at the Art Institute of Chicago
1941 Obtained U.S. citizenship
1946 Illustrated Rendezvous with Spain by Bernardo Clariana
1948 Married Gypsy Rose Lee
1948-1952 Taught at the University of Denver
1949 Joined a traveling carnival Royal American Shows alongside Gypsy
1952 Published “Commentaries—Europe 1952,” College Art Journal (Autumn)
1955 Taught at the Artist Equity Workshop for two years; divorced Lee
1958 Moved to California
1964 Illustrated A Stranger in the Spanish Village, by Anita Feagles
1968 Illustrated Have You Seen Birds? by Joanne Oppenheim
1969 The Book of Ah!, authored by De Diego, was published with six prints
1979 Dies in Sarasota, Florida, August 22

de Diego signature dancers
de Diego signature magician
de Diego signature altitude
de Diego signature saint

1929-46 (solo 1935) Art Institute of Chicago
1935, 1944 Art Institute of Chicago
1938 (gold medal) Chicago Society of Art
1940 Bonstell Gallery, New York, NY
1940 New York World’s Fair, NY
1940-54 WMAA
1943 Corcoran Gallery
1943 Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, DC
1944-1953 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1945, 1946 Nierendorf Gallery, New York, NY
1946 Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
1947 Surrealist Exhibition, Paris, France, and London, England
1948 International Cultural Affairs Exhibition, Department of State, Paris, London & Rome
1947, 1950 Associated American Artists, New York, NY
1952 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
1959 Pasadena Museum, CA, retrospective Carnegie Institute
1962 Laundry Gallery, New York, NY
1966 Ford Foundation Grant, Traveling Retrospective
1970 Frank Oehlscchlaeger, Chicago
1977 (retrospective) Woodstock Artist’s Association
1979 Galleries of Frank Oehlschlaeger, Sarasota, FL
1985 Corbino Galleries, Sarasota FL
1987 Hirschorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
1988 Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, New York, NY
1990 Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
1990 Petrucci Gallery, Saugerties, NY
1992 Corbino Galleries, Sarasota FL

Artists Equity Association, New York (president)
Sarasota Artist Association
Woodstock Artists Association

Works by the artist may be found at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as well as at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Corbino Galleries. Julio De Diego: A Journey. Florida: Corbino Galleries, 1992.

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor in Chief. Who was Who in American Art Volume 1, Sound View Press, 1999, p. 863.

Noralee Frankel. Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee. Oxford; New York. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Anita Jacobsen, Editor. Jacobsen’s Biographical Index of American Artists. A. J. Publications, 2002, p. 823.

“Art: From the Woolworth Tower,” Time, February 1, 1954.

“Art: 38 Views of the Armada.” Time, June 15, 1962.

“Julio De Diego: He Paints Weird War and Peace,” Life, March 11, 1946.

Marcia Corbino. "A fine madness: true tales from the days when Sarasota was an artists' colony."Sarasota Magazine. Clubhouse Publishing, Inc. 2003. AccessMyLibrary. 19 Oct. 2010

Ralph Pearson. The Modern Renaissance in American Art. Harper and Brothers, 1954, pp. 97-104.

Peri Tucker. “Artist at Large: Julio de Diego and his worldly-wise works of art.” St. Petersburg Times, April 1, 1962, p. 8.