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Self-Portrait with Monkey

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954). Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938. Oil on Masonite, 16 x 12 inches (40.6 x. 30.5 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966 (1966:9.10). © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Symbolic Self-Portrait

Featuring Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938

Conceptual Basis

Frida Kahlo was largely known for her symbolic self-portraits reflecting her life, loves, joys, and sorrows. Influenced by her Mexican culture, Kahlo uses vibrant color and meaningful imagery to portray her self-identity to the viewer. In this lesson, students will make connections to the artist while creating a self-portrait celebrating their own self-identity.

Featured Work

Frida Kahlo
(Mexican, 1910–1954)
Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938
Oil on Masonite
16 x 12 inches (40.6 x. 30.5 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966

Lesson Objectives

  • Become familiar with the artist Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits
  • Make connections between Mexican culture and the life of Frida Kahlo and modern society
  • Discuss the idea of personal self-identity
  • Create a self-portrait depicting personal self-identity and symbolism
  • Support the understanding of basic art elements and principles


  • Mirror (for older students)
  • Pencils
  • Drawing paperColoring materials: may include colored pencils, paint, markers, pastels, or crayons.

Background Information for Teachers

About the Artist

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1910–1954) was a self-taught painter, best known for her self-portraits. A survivor of polio, Kahlo entered a pre-med program in Mexico City. At eighteen years old, Kahlo was seriously injured in a bus accident; she had to recover in bed for more than a year. During this time, Kahlo began to pass the time by painting still life and self-portraits. Painting “her own reality,” the artist shares her personal experiences and feelings in her paintings. The self-portraits reflect Kahlo’s life, loves, joys, and sorrows. Influenced by her Mexican culture, she uses vibrant color and symbolic imagery. An animal lover, the artist often depicts pets such as monkeys and parrots in her portraits as well.

About the Art

Bright colors, an exotic landscape, and the traditional dress depicted in Self-Portrait with Monkey reflect Kahlo’s interest in her self-identity and Mexican heritage. Featured in this self-portrait is Kahlo’s pet spider monkey, Fulang-Chang. The monkey’s arm is draped across the artist’s shoulder in a tender and protective way. A variety of large green leaves illustrate the lush vegetation and warm climate of Mexico. Kahlo’s warm skin tones against the cool colored greens and blues creates emphasis and contrast in the painting. Kahlo is painted wearing a traditional Mexican blouse, bone necklace, and an elaborate hairstyle with a green ribbon, which further represents her Mexican culture. Self Portrait with Monkey was commissioned in 1938 by A. Conger Goodyear after he admired a previous painting of Kahlo and Fulang-Chang. Goodyear later bequeathed the painting to the Albright-Knox in 1966.

Vocabulary for Students

self-portrait: a portrait of an artist created by that artist

self-identity: awareness of oneself as an individual

symbolism: use of symbols to represent ideas 

Building Visual Literacy: Art Detectives

Breaking down the different elements in an artwork enables students to build abstract thoughts based on their concrete observations. It is an interactive way to teach visual literacy in your classroom. Explain to students that Frida Kahlo created numerous self-portrait paintings, many of which contain symbols and clues about the artist’s background and feelings. Have students investigate the different elements inSelf-Portrait with Monkey. Like detectives, students can piece together a conclusion about the artwork based on discussion and observations. 

Study the two subjects in the artwork: Frida Kahlo and a spider monkey. Are the two subjects interacting with one another? What might their relationship be based on their observations? Inform students that the monkey is Fulang-Chang, a beloved pet of the artist. Why might Kahlo want to paint Fulang-Chang?

Investigate what Kahlo is wearing in the painting. Do her outfit, hairstyle, and necklace appear to be modern? Where might you find fashion seen in the painting? Why might Kahlo paint herself wearing these clothes?  Connecting to her fashion, study the background. Ask students if they can identify where the artist is during the time of the painting. Examine the leaves and plants behind Kahlo. Where could these plants be located: a warm or cool climate? Does the sky look blue or cloudy? What season might it be?

Once students have observed, discussed, and investigated the painting, ask students to construct a conclusion about the painting. Why did Frida Kahlo create this self-portrait? Students may conclude that Kahlo wanted to depict the pride she has in her Mexican heritage and the love of her pet.

What types of objects or images might have personal meaning to students? Have students share what types of things they would include in a self-portrait. Making connections to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey; inform students that personal self-identity is reflected in their heritage, interests, and more. Students can begin brainstorming different objects or symbols that represent their self-identity. Students can even add portraits of their pets.  Special keepsakes, favorite things, and activities can be drawn into their self-portrait to add personal and symbolic meaning to their artwork.

Artmaking Activity

Students can create their self-portrait in a variety of ways. These techniques can be used for different skill levels and grades. The formal way of creating a self-portrait is to use a mirror as a reference when drawing oneself. Students can also work from a picture when drawing. Younger students can draw themselves as they imagine in their self-portrait. Encourage students to draw their self-portrait interacting with their symbolic imagery. For example, Fulang-Chang drapes his arm around Kahlo while she wears a traditional Mexican necklace. The background is reminiscent of the tropical lush nature found in Mexico. Once students have drawn their composition, they can color it in using materials of the teacher’s choice.

Lesson Tips

  • This lesson can be tailored for your curriculum specifications. For Social Studies, instead of creating a self-portrait in modern times, students can create a self-portrait of themselves if they lived during a time in history. For example, in a lesson on Ancient Egypt, students can create a period self-portrait emphasizing the fashion, scenery, and symbols of the times.

Optional Reflections and Lesson Wrap-Up

  • Students can share their self-portrait with their classmates, describing the different symbols and objects they included that reflect their self-identity.  
  • In a writing assignment, students can write a letter about themselves and their life to a person in the future. Have students reference their artwork, describing the elements in their self-portrait.

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum Standards

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies: 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening: 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language: 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7

Teacher Example

Colorful portrait of a young woman with a cat on a floral background
Example of finished artwork based on lesson plan. Self-Portrait with Cat by School Program Coordinator Kelly Macagnone.


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