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  • The Morrows in Mexico: A Pictorial Essay
  • Susan Danly (bio)

Dwight W. Morrow (1873–1931) served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico for only a brief time in the late 1920s. But during his tenure a radical shift took place in Mexican-American relations. Credited as the first modern diplomat from the United States to develop a deep appreciation of Mexican culture, Morrow was especially fond of handicrafts—old pieces of lacquerware from Olinalá, large ceramic pots from Guerrero and Oaxaca, and colorful Talavera tiles from Puebla. Soon after arriving in Mexico, he and his wife, the writer Elizabeth Cutter Morrow (1873–1955), built a modest weekend retreat in Cuernavaca and filled it with their growing collection of Mexican crafts. The adobe-walled house, known as Casa Mañana, was noted for its open patios and terraced gardens. It afforded the Morrows not only a refuge from the stresses of diplomatic life but, more important, an opportunity to establish a relationship with ordinary Mexicans. In a book about her new home and lifestyle, Elizabeth Morrow lovingly describes the children of her neighborhood, the master mason who built the house, and the artisans who provided rugs and furniture.

The Morrows were introduced to the world of Mexican arts and crafts by three expatriates equally committed to collecting and to promoting Mexico’s rich visual culture. Frederick Davis, an American who ran the Sonora News Company, a shop for tourists in Mexico City, sold the Morrows the Cuernavaca property and for the next twenty-five years helped manage the house and gardens for them. In 1926 Davis had hired a young, impoverished Austrian count, René d’Harnoncourt, who had a knack for finding interesting crafts in the remote villages of central Mexico. D’Harnoncourt supplied many of the objects that Davis sold in his shop and became a good friend of and adviser to the Morrows. He helped Mrs. Morrow design several Puebla-tiled fountains and painted a mural of Cuernavaca on a garden wall at Casa Mañana. Along with their mutual friend, William Spratling, another American, who revived the silver trade in nearby Taxco during the 1930s, d’Harnoncourt brought the Morrows into contact with some of Mexico’s most important contemporary artists: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, and José Clemente Orozco. Impressed with Rivera’s murals in particular, Morrow commissioned the artist in 1928 to paint scenes of Cuernavaca’s colonial and revolutionary history in the Palace of Cortés, the city’s main municipal building. [End Page 86]

When the Morrows left Mexico in late 1930, their collection became even better known to American audiences. Morrow was the driving force behind one of the first comprehensive exhibitions of Mexican art in the United States. An enormous installation, with over twelve hundred objects, the show featured not only folk art from the Morrows’ collection but also older works of colonial art and contemporary paintings and prints lent by Mexican museums and private collectors. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the exhibition was organized by d’Harnoncourt for the American Federation of Arts. It opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveled to fourteen cities across the country. Selected as one of the ten best exhibitions of 1930 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and with a total attendance of over 375,000, it could be considered a blockbuster for its day. The great success of the exhibition and the wide press coverage it received forever associated Morrow’s name with Mexico: “His signal achievement of having established friendly relations between the United States and the Republic south of the Rio Grande,” said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “was immeasurably aided because of his recognition of the fact that Mexico’s artistic expression was a key to understanding Mexico.”

Although Morrow died suddenly the following year, Mrs. Morrow kept the Cuernavaca house and, after 1935, returned to Mexico almost every spring for a month or so. The city fathers, with great ceremony, changed the name of the street to Calle Morrow, and Mrs. Morrow later [End Page 87] gave the city funds with which to restore the Rivera murals. Her trips to Mexico usually revolved around short trips...