Picturing Power: Elizabeth I and Frida Kahlo

Penny Huntsman

What do Elizabeth I and Frida Kahlo have in common? At first glance, there is little to link these women of different vocations, centuries and cultures. Art history teacher Penny Huntsman, however, finds remarkable parallels in their lives by looking at portraits of the two women.

Crafted to project distinctive identity and female power, these paintings proclaim the sacrifices each woman made for her nation. Huntsman explores the symbols and strategies at play in these works. Whilst the two women may have had different motives, Huntsman considers how they could be considered ‘two sides of one coin’.

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These are two women that made great sacrifices for their nations. Even though they span centuries and cultures, it’s remarkable how many similarities there are. It’s about asserting identity and, in both of their cases, nationhood.

The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, painted around 1590 by an unknown artist, commemorates the Spanish Armada of 1588. What we’re looking at is really Elizabeth at the zenith of her power. We have the Spanish fleet invading England, and Elizabeth wasn’t going to have that. In the right-hand window, rather cartoon-like, actually, in the way that it’s depicted, we have the Spanish fleet being thrown up against some rocks and actually defeated.

Elizabeth is taking up most of the composition, she’s in a pyramidal form, she quite literally looks like the person who has intervened to bring this about herself. It’s deceiving, because in actual fact there were a lot of variables at play with this victory, not least the size of the vessels on both sides and also the weather.

Without the storms, we do wonder whether this victory would have come about at all. She said that God’s winds blew, and by doing that was associating herself with the divine power of God, and that really reinforced her divine right to the throne. All of her images were used as propaganda, and she was very well aware that she needed to use her image to maintain her power and also her realm.

Some four centuries later we have a Mexican artist, also a very headstrong female, who is particularly talented at image making. And she is relentlessly trying to associate herself with her nation. Her Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the U.S.A, we can see that Frida like Elizabeth adopts this sort of isosceles triangle in the middle of the work. She’s oriented herself, much as Elizabeth did centuries previously, towards her beloved Mexico, with her back to that which she hates, and that’s America at this time for Frida Kahlo.

She’s looking to a Mexico, not a contemporary Mexico, but to a Mexico pre-colonisation, pre-Columbian. She even wears pre-Columbian beads and did her entire life as a statement of her beloved ancient Mexico, untouched and pure. If we look at some lovely little iconic devices, she’s smoking a cigarette and points the cigarette towards America where belching pipes cover the stars and stripes. In fact, Frida Kahlo changed her date of birth to coincide with the Mexican Revolution. So, here’s somebody who’d do whatever they can to align themselves with the Mexican nation.

I think what’s quite interesting is that we know for a fact that Frida Kahlo had a very small image of the fifteenth-century double portrait by Jan Van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait, and know that she was interested in art history. It’s quite interesting to think that she may have looked at an image of Elizabeth I.

I think certainly the symbols and the images in both the Armada Portrait and in Frida Kahlo’s works are infinitely more important than any illusionism, in terms of how real we should think they are.

If we look at Elizabeth in the Armada Portrait, with that huge ruff, stiffened as a result of the discovery of starch, but actually sort of emanating from her like the rays of the sun, if you compare that to Self-Portrait as Tehuana, with Frida Kahlo. Now tehuana is a traditional Mexican dress, but Frida Kahlo has exaggerated that Mexican dress to actually look quite a lot like an Elizabethan ruff. While Elizabeth used her ruff to signal her status, Frida Kahlo is using the ruff of the tehuana to expand its tendrils, to act as a web to catch her husband and lover Diego Rivera.

There are some portraits of her, particularly the one with the hummingbird around her neck, where she will enhance her Mexicaness, exaggerate it to the point of ridiculousness sometimes. So, for instance the hummingbird that hangs from her neck compositionally echoes her monobrow. She also enhances her moustache to show her Mexicaness, the darkness of her skin. These are things that are quite counterintuitive for a woman to do. She’s not interested in a realistic depiction or an idealised depiction of herself. Frida Kahlo was entirely in control of her own image-making because hers are self-portraits and you could argue when you’re looking at Elizabeth I that she hasn’t actually painted these works. However, I don’t think we should ever for one-minute think that she wasn’t pulling any of the strings.

The chair that Elizabeth sits on is gilded with a mermaid. What Elizabeth is doing and probably quite subtly is reminding us that she might be a vulnerable woman on one level, but woman should be feared, especially at sea, and mermaids of course lure in men and bring about destruction.

I’d like to think that when we see Elizabeth back in the Armada Portrait looking every inch the regal monarch that she is, that maybe one of the sparks of inspiration may have been when she was looking at her father, and her father certainly used clothing to stamp his identity. In this instance showing his masculine virility, focused rather humorously on this giant-sized cod piece. Now Elizabeth, for obvious reasons, can’t use a cod piece to tell everybody that she’s going to produce an heir and that she’s a very powerful character. She uses her inability to procreate to enhance her power rather than diminish it.

Elizabeth wore pearls most of the time and they were a symbol of her purity. So, what we have here is a symbol of her as the Virgin Queen, through and through. And that really is a stealth propaganda idea for Elizabeth to do because monarchs were always in danger if they couldn’t produce heirs and the fact that she managed to turn this to her advantage, and more than just state that, Elizabeth actually said that she would wed the nation instead.

Frida Kahlo aged seven would contract polio, at eighteen she would be involved with a horrific car accident that would break her pelvis and her spine, leave her hospitalised for much of her life, and leave her unable to have children, and that is something else she also had in common with Elizabeth. I think the difference was, and maybe that’s why one was one of the most successful female monarchs we’ve ever had, was that Elizabeth used her inability to procreate to her advantage. And actually, it was a very shrewd thing to do to win the hearts and minds of men as actually only the Virgin Mary had managed to do previously.

And under the reformation, actually, Elizabeth very much offered herself up as a replacement for the Virgin Mary and would become in fact the mother of England herself. With the Armada Portrait we have such a strong image of nationhood. With Frida Kahlo, I can’t help but have respect for a young girl at that time who depicts herself in such a way as to always marry herself to Mexico. While these two women might have different motives, both of them were very intelligent and headstrong and powerful image-makers. They’re two sides of one coin.

With thanks to…

Bernard Silberstien

Hatfield House

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Queen’s House

Royal Museums Greenwich

The National Portrait Gallery

Walker Art Gallery



Alamy Stock Photo

Bridgeman Images

Getty Images

Nickolas Muray

Oddball Films




Audio Network


Full list of images shown

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes.

English School, c. 1600–1610

Copy of a lost original of c. 1559

NPG 5175

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States

Frida Kahlo, 1932

Philadelphia Museum of Art

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


Elizabeth I – Armada Portrait

Unknown Artist, c.1588

Queen’s House / Royal Museums Greenwich


Self Portrait as a Tehuana

Frida Kahlo, 1943

Art Gallery of New South Wales

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


The Rainbow Portrait

Attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c.1600 – 1602

Hatfield House


Frida Kahlo in Tehuana Costume

Bernard Silberstien, 1940

Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio/Bridgeman Images


Frida in New York

Nickolas Muray, c.1931-1941

Nickolas Muray Archive


Frida Kahlo

Julien Levy, 1938

Vicente Wolf Photography Collection

125th Anniversary Acquisition.

The Lynne and Harold Honickman Gift of the Julien Levy Collection, 2001

© 2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art


Queen Elizabeth I

After William Rodgers, 1588

Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Colored Street Of Colonial City San Miguel De Allende Mexico


Home Movie of Kahlo and Diego Riviera

Artist Unknown, N.D.

Oddball Film


Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr Eloesser

Frida Kahlo, 1940

The Artchives / Alamy Stock Photo

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


Frida Kahlo

Nickolas Muray, 1939


Frida Kahlo

Photographer Unknown, 1939


The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck, 1434

The National Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Self Portrait with Braid

Frida Kahlo, 1941

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


The Darnley Portrait

Unknown Artist, c.1575


Frida and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo, 1931

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Frida Kahlo, 1940

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


My Nurse and I

Frida Kahlo, 1937

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


Frida Kahlo Painting

Photographer Unknown, 1931


Queen Elizabeth I

Artist Unknown, c.1585 – c.1590

NPG 2471

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



The Kiss of the Siren

Gustav Wertheimer, 1882

Indianapolis Museum of Art


Portrait of Henry VIII

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1537-1547

Walker Art Gallery


Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth

Artist Unknown, c.1600-1603


Elizabeth Queen of England, Engraving

Crispijn de Passe I, 1592


Frida Kahlo Painting in Bed

Juan Guzman, 1952


Broken Column

Frida Kahlo, 1944

© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018.


The Ditchley Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c.1592

NPG 2561

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


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