It was created using oil on Masonite and measures 16 x 12 inches. The painting was commissioned by the president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, A. Conger Goodyear.
He had wanted to purchase an earlier self-portrait that Kahlo had painted of herself with her spider-monkey, Fulang Chang, but she had given it as a gift to a friend. She created this painting especially for Goodyear, taking only about a week to complete it. It currently hangs in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
Frida Kahlo depicts herself gazing straight at the viewer with a solemn and rather stern expression. She places herself in front of a background of green leaves. A small monkey is behind her left shoulder, also gazing straight at the viewer.
The monkey has his arm draped protectively around Kahlo’s shoulder. As she was unable to have children, due to childhood polio and a road accident that left her badly injured, the artist kept many small monkeys as pets and treated them like children.
In Mexican mythology, the monkey symbolizes lust, but here it is shown as tender and affectionate.
The monkey has a green ribbon around its neck that matches the green ribbon that Kahlo has woven into her up-swept hair. Her white dress matches the colour of the vines behind her and she wears a traditional Mexican necklace carved from bone.
The painting shows her love of nature and her admiration for the indigenous culture of Mexico. Many of her other paintings include her monkeys, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups or with other animals. The 1943 painting Self Portrait with Monkeys includes three spider monkeys, who wrap their arms around her, as in this painting.
In the 1940 painting Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird a spider monkey tugs at a necklace of thorns around Kahlo’s neck, making her bleed, while a black cat approaches from behind, ready to pounce on the hummingbird that hangs from her necklace.