Frida Kahlo's The Wounded Deer: Painting & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Frida Kahlo's works are often autobiographical, but they don't look like your standard self-portraits. In this lesson, we'll check out her 1946 ''The Wounded Deer,'' and see how layers of symbolism tell us something about the painter.

Frida Kahlo and the Wounded Deer

Artists famously have reputations for being tormented souls, using their personal suffering to fuel artistic genius. Sometimes this archetype is over-exaggerated, and sometimes it's not. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican painter whose work reshaped 20th century Mexican culture. She is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the century, and is renowned for her treatment of subjects ranging from feminism and equality to indigenous heritage, imperialism, and class.

Frida Kahlo

One theme that constantly emerged in Kahlo's work, however, is suffering. After a lifetime of physical, emotional, and relationship pains, Kahlo's worldview was one that understood and embraced the role of trauma in human experiences. In few paintings is this more clear than her 1946 ''The Wounded Deer''.


''The Wounded Deer'' was painted in 1946 as a wedding present for Kahlo's friends, Lina and Arcady Boitler. The attached note said that is was so that she could always be with them. The painting itself displays a deer, pierced with numerous arrows, running through a forest of dead trees. Kahlo painted her own head onto the deer, in keeping with her ubiquitous focus on self-portrait. In the lower left is the word carma (from the Spanish for the Eastern concept of karma). All in all, the mood is somber and depressing, emphasizing themes of suffering and hopelessness.

The Wounded Deer, painted by Kahlo in 1946


So, what does this actually mean, and why is Frida Kahlo a deer? Kahlo often painted self-portraits, and her work was almost always autobiographical in some sense. In this case, the scene relates back to an old injury. Earlier in life, Kahlo's right foot and leg had been crushed in a bus accident. The loss of mobility was a frequent subject in many of her paintings. Then, in 1946, Frida Kahlo went to New York City to undergo an extensive operation on her spine to relieve her of constant back pain. The operation failed, and Kahlo returned to Mexico in greater pain than before, and suffering from emotional depression.

The Stag

The stag is a strong creature, used to represent vitality in many cultures. Here, however, it has been severely wounded. In fact, its condition is entirely hopeless. Kahlo's face on the stag creates a clear connection between her inability to escape from physical and emotional pain after the failed surgery.

That interpretation is reinforced by layers of symbolism. Kahlo was always fascinated by the indigenous heritage of Mexico, and blended Aztec themes into European imagery throughout her career. In this case, the deer was an ancient Aztec symbol that represented the right foot. So, by using Aztec symbolism Kahlo connects her recent pain to the lifetime of physical suffering she's endured.

The deer is significant in one final way as well. Frida Kahlo was biologically unable to have children, and this fact haunted her for her entire life. It's another common theme in much of her artwork. Instead, Kahlo took to adopting animals and treated them almost like surrogate children that she could care for. One of her favorites was a pet deer named Granzino. Granzino was the model for the painting, which suggests another level of suffering in Kahlo's inability to have children.

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