José Clemente Orozco was born on November 28, 1883, in Zapotlán el Grande (now Ciudad Guzmán), Jalisco, Mexico. He spent most of his artistic career living and working in Mexico City, New York City, and Guadalajara. In addition to Pomona College’s Prometheus, Orozco completed several monumental mural works at sites in Mexico and the United States, including the National Preparatory School in Mexico City; the New School for Social Research in New York City; the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; the University of Guadalajara, the Government Palace, and the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara; and the Gabino Ortíz Library in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Mexico.
Orozco’s artistic training developed out of his experiences as a student in Mexico and as an illustrator for independent newspapers. After initially pursuing agronomy and cartography, he enrolled at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City to study architecture. Although he had previously studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos in 1890, he did not formally enroll at the academy to study painting until 1907.
In 1910, during the Mexican Revolution, Orozco drew cartoons that lampooned the political turmoil for publications such as The Vanguard, a revolutionary newspaper edited by Mexican writer and painter Dr. Atl. Even after Orozco painted his first murals in 1923 at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, as part of an initiative led by the Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos, he continued to contribute drawings and caricatures to the daily press. Murals and cartoons featured equally in his exploration of art that could communicate to a wide public. Both his early political engagement and his fine art training may be seen in his mature work, which frequently featured monumentality, allegorical figures, and commentary on race, labor, and institutions.
Orozco’s vision of the mythical figure of Prometheus as an allegory for art intended for a broad audience highlights the ethos of post-revolutionary Mexican muralism as a means to transform society. In Mexican muralism, art practice was associated with the continuing struggle to build a nation. The muralists viewed their art as a weapon for social justice and civic engagement. The work of Orozco and his peers is a model for a politically engaged life as an artist.
By the end of the 1920s, the utopian experimental phase of mural art in Mexico had eroded, and public commissions became rare. The shifting political climate and subsequent lack of artistic opportunity led many artists to leave Mexico in search of new patrons and opportunities. Orozco was part of that exodus. He arrived in New York City in 1927 and spent the next seven years in the United States. As he immersed himself in the contemporary art scene and moved in intellectual circles, he also executed a number of major mural projects. Prometheus (1930) is the first of those.
On his return to Mexico, Orozco found renewed federal and municipal patronage. Back in Mexico he turned to subjects from Mexican history and allegories of humanity’s ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. Between 1936 and 1939, the artist transformed the architectural surfaces of the auditorium at the University of Guadalajara, the stairs at the Government Palace, and the chapel of the Hospicio Cabañas into dramatic visualizations of conquest, independence, and modernity. He also completed murals in Mexico City and helped found the National College in Mexico City. The Government of Mexico awarded him the National Prize for Visual Arts; his work was featured in the Palace of Fine Arts “National Retrospective Exhibition” in 1947. Orozco died on September 7, 1949 and was interred in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men in the capital.