Jose Clemente Orozco was born in 1883 in Zapotlan el Grande (now Ciudad Guzman), Jalisco to Rosa de Flores Orozco. He married Margarita Valladares, and had three children. At the age of 21, Orozco lost his left hand while working with gunpowder to make fireworks.
The satirical illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose engravings about Mexican culture and politics challenged Mexicans to think differently about post-revolutionary Mexico, worked in full view of the public in shop windows located on the way Orozco went to school. In his autobiography, Orozco confesses, "I would stop [on my way to and from school] and spend a few enchanted minutes in watching [Posada]… This was the push that first set my imagination in motion and impelled me to cover paper with my earliest little figures; this was my awakening to the existence of the art of painting." (Orozco, 1962) He goes to say that watching Posada's engraving decorated gave him his introduction to the use of color. After attending school for Agriculture and Architecture, Orozco studied art at the Academy of San Carlos. He worked as an illustrator for Mexico City newspapers and directly as an illustrator for one of the Constitutionalist armies overseen by "First Chief" Venustiano Carranza. When the revolutionary factions split in 1914 after Victoriano Huerta was ousted, Orozco supported Carranza and General Alvaro Obregon against Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
With Diego Rivera, he was a leader of the artist movement known as Mexican Muralism. An important distinction he had from Rivera was his darker view of the Mexican Revolution. While Rivera was a bold, optimistic figure, touting the glory of the revolution, Orozco was less comfortable with the bloody toll the social movement was taking. Orozco is known as one of the "Big Three" muralists along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. All three artists, as well as the painter Rufino Tamayo, experimented with fresco on large walls, and elevated the art of the mural.
Between 1922–1924, Orozco painted the murals: "Maternity", "Man in Battle Against Nature", "Christ Destroys His Cross", "Destruction of the Old Order", "The Aristocrats", and "The Trench and the Trinity" at the National Preparatory School. Some of the murals were destroyed by Orozco himself, and later repainted. Others were vandalized by conservative students and practically destroyed. Thus, Orozco had to repaint many of them when he came back to the School in 1926. 1925, he painted the mural "Omniscience" at Mexico City's House of Tiles. In 1926, he painted a mural at the Industrial School in Orizaba, Veracruz.
Between 1927–1934 Orozco lived in the USA. Even after the fall of the stock market in 1929, his works were still in demand. From March to June 1930, at the invitation of the Pomona College Art Department, he painted what he noted was the "first fresco painted outside the country by a painter of the Contemporary Mexican School." The fresco, Prometheus (Prometeo del Pomona College), on the wall of a Pomona College dining hall, was direct and personal at a time when murals were expected to be decorous and decorative, and has been called the first "modern" fresco in the United States. Later that year, he painted murals at the New School for Social Research, New York City, now known as the New School University. One of his most famous murals is The Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. It was painted between 1932 and 1934 and covers almost 300 m² (3200 square feet) in 24 panels. Its parts include: "Migrations", "Human Sacrifices", "The Appearance of Quetzalcoatl", "Corn Culture", "Anglo-America", "Hispano-America", "Science" and "Modern Migration of the Spirit" (another version of "Christ Destroys His Cross").
After returning to Mexico in 1935, Orozco painted in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the mural "The People and Its Leaders" in the Government Palace, and the frescos for the Hospicio Cabanas, which are considered his masterpiece. In 1940 he painted at the Gabino Ortiz Library in Jiquilpan, Michoacan. Between 1942–1944 Orozco painted for the Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City. Orozco's 1948 "Juarez Reborn" huge portrait-mural was one of his last works.
In 1947, Orozco illustrated the book The Pearl, by John Steinbeck.
Orozco died in 1949 in Mexico City.
Orozco painted his fresco, The Epic of American Civilization, in the lower level of Dartmouth College's Baker Memorial Library.
Jose Clemente Orozco's mural series in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at San Ildefonso College spans three floors of the building and includes multiple other murals in the stairway, all of which depict his critical view of the Revolution. The Escuela Nacional Preparatoria commissioned him in February 1923; however, his earlier panels created serious political conflict, causing him to cease his work, like Siqueiros'. He later returned to finish the work he began under a new wave of social change in 1926.
On the first floor of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria are a series of murals including, The Trench, The Destruction of the Old Order, Maternity, The Strike, The Trinity, and The Banquet of the Rich. The first image is "located under the central arch of the ground floor of the north wall and is the only wall section perfectly framed by the colonnade from the vantage point of the center of the courtyard" and is called The Trench. A unique aspect of the first floor murals is that each mural parallels in width to the arched openings of the colonnade. The Destruction of the Old Order and Maternity are located to the right of The Trench. To the left of The Trench are The Strike, The Trinity, and at the intersection of the west corridor is The Banquet of the Rich. Among the murals that Orozco destroyed are, The Elements, Man Struggling Against Nature, Man Falling, and Christ Destroying His Cross. An interesting element of the destroyed mural Christ Destroying His Cross, of which Orozco only kept Christ's head, is that he reverted to the use of Christian iconography: Christ is destroying his cross in agony over its misuse as a symbol.
The Trench is described as a "confirmation of what an extraordinary and powerful painter Orozco would turn out to be" and is compared to the mural The Farewell, "where the initial impression is of a bloody action scene of great melodrama." He uses jarring muted tones of a darker palette, which matches the dark theme portrayed. Orozco promotes a dignified view of death, as the viewer sees three men sacrificing themselves. Two of the men appear to have died, even though no wounds are present on their bodies, and a third is kneeling while covering his face with his left arm. Their faces are hidden, which gives the viewer a sense of anonymity behind the sacrifice of the many victims of the revolution. This poses the question, is the sacrifice of many worth anything? It makes their anonymous identity more powerful than if they had recognizable identities, because they now represent the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought and died for the same reason. There is also a component of Christian iconography in this mural, as the central man leans spread eagle against a barricade of rocks and beams that resemble a cross, which contributes to the mural's balance but not in a symmetrical way. This is an allusion to the crucifix, with the central soldier playing the role of the martyr, which is further exemplified by his lack weapons. Analysis of this mural and many other murals by Orozco about the Mexican Revolution is summed up by a statement by Antonio Rodriguez, which states "Orozco showed its...tragedy."
The Trinity is a negative image of the revolution in which a revolutionary leader is the central figure in the mural, "blinded by the red Jacobian hat of the revolution" and threatening the very people he is supposed to be fighting for. The peasant on the right is on his knees begging for mercy while the peasant on the left, whose hands have been severed from the wrist down, watches. This displays the situation of the working class, who have been recruited to fight and do not know who they are fighting or why they are fighting at all.
The Banquet of the Rich displays Orozoco's caricature style. It is a depiction of social criticism through the use of satire. In this mural, the viewer sees a depiction of the rich, whose faces and bodies are obviously distorted, which is meant "to represent their decadence and abuses of power" and the working class. It is meant to portray the situation of the working class as oppressed by the rich and in a state of war with one another. This point is further exemplified by the view of the rich who can look down on the working class and continue to live a life of decadence without consequences. This displays the workers as completely blind to their situation by acting as gladiators for the entertainment of the rich. Tools held by the working class individuals in this murals are being used as weapons, which shows "the workers are turning the objects of their livelihood against themselves, have not acquired real weapons and are caught up in confusion about what people and things are really for, treating comrades like enemies." While this mural is not aesthetically pleasing, with its repulsive distorted characters, it evokes thought within the spectator about their personal situation as a member of the working class or of the privileged bourgeois.
The second story of murals by Orozco in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, which were painted in 1923-4, includes the murals Law and Justice, Jehovah Between the Rich and the Poor, Liberty, Garbage, and The Rich, which are listed in order from left to right.
The third story, created between 1924-6, includes the murals, Women, The Grave Digger, The Blessing, The Workers, The Farewell, The Family, and The Revolutionaries.
The Farewell is grandiose in scale and displays the final moments before the sacrifice of the Revolution. The landscape is somber, as is as the expression behind the leftward earthbound woman, who appears to be the man's mother or grandmother. There are three pairs present in this mural: the leftward couple of the elderly woman and the man who kisses her hand, another couple locked in a final embrace, and a third one of two stooping men. The rhythmic pairing suggests a shard identity of the men who are leaving to fight the Revolution. "What this treatment does to history, to real events such as departing to fight a revolution, is to turn it into a natural (that is, of nature), inevitable, and timeless event, or not an event at all but a condition about which humans can do nothing to change since the condition is made of them and vice versa."
Additional murals, completed by Orozco in 1924-6, are "painted on the walls and rising overheads of the ground floor," including Aboriginal Races, Franciscans Helping the Sick, The Youth and Cortes and Malinche. The Drinking Men and The Engineers encase the stairway on the east wall of the courtyard. Cortes and Malinche is a dignified view of the creation of the first mestizo, a result of the Spanish colonialism in Mexico. "This union between the Spanish European conquistador and his female Indian mistress was an incontestable historical fact" and is demonstrated as the two bodies join into one. Their bodies are Michelangelo-like as they represent the "Old World man and a New World woman." Orozoco works to represent the inequities present between this relationship by portraying Cortes' gestures as domineering and Malinche's as subordinate. Cortes' gesture of placing his arm across Malinche's torso, "both prevents an act of supplication for the Indian on Malinche's part and acts as a final separation from her formal life." This image serves as a synthesis of the Spanish colonization of Mexico, the critical role Malinche played, and the beginning of the mestizo in Mexican history.
"¡Orozco!" by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico at The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1980Praying Hands, 1900-1924
Man Struggling Against Nature, 1923-4
Man Falling, 1923-4
Christ Destroying His Cross, 1923-4
Law and Justice, 1923-4
Jehovah Between the Rich and the Poor, 1923-4
At San Ildefonso College
The Banquet of the Rich, 1923-4
The Strike, 1923-4
The Elements, 1923-4
The Rich, 1923-4
The Grave Digger, 1924-6
The Blessing, 1924-6
The Workers, 1924-6
The Farewell, 1924-6
The Family, 1924-6
The Revolutionaries, 1924-6
Aboriginal Races, 1924-6
Franciscans Helping the Sick, 1924-6
Cortes and Malinche, 1924-6
The Drinking Men, 1924-6
The Trench, 1926
The Destruction of the Old Order, 1926
Echate la otra, 1930, Cleveland Museum of Art
Wounded Soldier, 1930, Cleveland Museum of Art