The Virgin Guadalupe and the Wicked Witch of the West

by Joseph Toone

The history of painter Candelario Rivas is filled with fascinating tales, many about women: his wife, Pancho Villa’s wife, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Recently I was visiting a friend, who has the most extensive collection of faith-based art I’ve ever seen collected by a foreigner. The focal point of the collection is a painting of the Virgin of Remedios that is hung over her fireplace. She bought the piece in an antique store on Hidalgo over a decade ago. The painting is signed, “C. Rivas, 1906, Leon, Gto.” Candelario Rivas' signature led me down a fascinating rabbit hole of the art of our region and Hollywood.

Rivas got his name because he was born on February 2 (1877), the feast of Candlearia. (Candlearia celebrates when Jesus went to the temple for the first time, forty days following his birth and marks the end of the holiday season in today’s San Miguel.)

When Candelario was twelve he snuck off to join the circus, attracted by the bright colors in circus posters. (When my brother was 22 he “snuck off” to join the circus with his clown act – “Farmer Toone, his Wife and their Kid, the Goat.”)

By the time he was a teenager Candelario Rivas was getting commissioned to do large scale paintings for churches throughout central Mexico, including those in Leon, Querétaro, Salamanca and San Luis Potosi.

When not painting, Candelario sidelined as a photographer. Examining a graduation class photo, he zeroed in a young woman named Herlinda. He cut out out her image and placed it in his wallet. Months later he met her at a dinner party. He showed her that he already carried his image with him at all times. Eventually they married.

In 1914, during the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa came to the Rivas' home and escorted (read “kidnapped”) Candelario. It seems Pancho wanted a portrait painted of his new wife. Once completed, Candelario was returned to a much relieved Herlinda only to be kidnapped again by Pancho Villa a few days later. It seems Señora Villa did not like her eyebrows in the painting. Candelario redid them.

Speaking of touch ups, in 1921 the image of Guadalupe on St. Juan Diego’s cape suffered from a bomb explosion. On the QT, Candelario was brought in to do some touch up work. No documentation exists of the touch ups, but the gold paint found on her image is identical to the paint Candelario exclusively used in his other works. Also, his participation has been verified by the assistant curator at the Basilica. Candelario painted a watercolor replica of Guadalupe during this time that is still on display in the Vatican.

In 1923, when the Cristero War (the Mexican Government versus the Church) heated up Candelario took his family to Los Angles where he spent the second half of his life. The churches in the US, however, didn’t want large murals. Instead Candelario found work painting celluloid goddesses.

His first big success in Hollywood was a life sized image of Paramount’s then top star, Constance Bennett. You might remember her sister, Joan, from the campy, vampire-ridden, 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows.

His big boost came from painting a Mexican version of Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Academy Award. The success of that image got him commissions painting murals in Los Angeles theaters and also in the future home of Walt Disney.

What he is remembered for today is this three days of work on the set of the Wizard of Oz, painting the three by four foot image of the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle used for exterior shots.

Still, following his years of painting of saints and Virgins in Mexico, Candelario felt Hollywood was demeaning his soul. Despite his ability to earn in one day in Hollywood what it took him one month to earn in Mexico, he declined further contracts.

Candelario was also a dog person, often placing his pooch in his religious images.

So the next time you are gamboling down Hidalgo, and view a painting by C. Rivas, don’t hesitate to own your own piece of art history, by the man who painted the “goddesses” both of Mexico and of the silver screen.

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Joseph Toone is Amazon's bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books and TripAdvisor's best rated historical walking tour guide. For more information contact toone.joseph@yahoo.com or visit History and Culture Walking Tours or JosephTooneTours.com, also on FaceBook.

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