José Miguel Covarrubias was born 22 November 1904 in Mexico City. Following his graduation from the elite Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, at the age of 14, he dedicated himself to drawing, producing caricatures and illustrations for texts and training materials published by the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education. He also worked for the Secretariat of Communications as a teenager.
In 1924 at the age of 19 he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English speaking skill. In her book, Covarrubias, author Adriana Williams tells how Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and New York Times critic/photographer Carl Van Vechten, introduced him to New York's literary/cultural elite (Also known as the Smart Set). Soon Covarrubias was drawing for several top magazines, eventually becoming one of Vanity Fair magazine's premier caricaturists.
A man of many talents, he also began to design sets and costumes for the theater including Caroline Dudley Reagan's La Revue Negre starring Josephine Baker in the show that made her a smash in Paris. Other shows included Androcles and the Lion, The Four Over Thebes, and the Garrick Gaities' Rancho Mexicano number for dancer and choreographer Rosa Rolando (or Rolanda; born Rosemonde Cowan, and later to take the name Rosa Covarrubias). The two fell in love and traveled together to Mexico, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean in the mid to late 1920s. During one of their trips to Mexico, Rosa and Miguel traveled with Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, who taught Rosa photography. Rosa was also introduced to Miguel's family and friends including artist Diego Rivera. Rosa would become lifelong friends with Rivera's second wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.
Miguel's artwork and celebrity caricatures have been featured in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. The linear nature of his drawing style was highly influential to other caricaturists such as Al Hirschfeld. Miguel's first book of caricatures The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans was a hit, though not all his subjects were thrilled that his sharp, pointed wit was aimed at them. He immediately fell in love with the Harlem jazz scene, which he frequented with Rosa and friends including Eugene O'Neill and Nickolas Muray. He counted many notables among his friends including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and W.C. Handy for whom he also illustrated books. Miguel's caricatures of the jazz clubs were the first of their kind printed in Vanity Fair. He managed to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance in much of his work as well as in his book, Negro Drawings. He did not consider these caricatures, but serious drawings of people, music and a culture he loved. Covarrubias also did illustrations for George Macy, the publisher of The Limited Editions Club, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, Green Mansions, Herman Melville's Typee, and Pearl Buck's All Men Are Brothers. Heritage Press, the sister organization of The Limited Editions Club, reprinted unsigned editions. In addition he did illustrations for publisher Alfred & Charles Boni's Frankie and Johnny for a young writer who would become a good friend and film director named John Huston. Today, these editions are very sought after by collectors. He collaborated in Austrian Artist Wolfgang Paalen's journal Dyn from 1942-44. Additionally his advertising, painting and illustration work brought him international recognition including gallery shows in Europe, Mexico and the United States as well as awards such as the 1929 National Art Directors' Medal for painting in color for his work on a Steinway & Sons piano advertisement.
Miguel and Rosa married in 1930 and they took an extended honeymoon to Bali with the National Art Directors' Medal prize money where they immersed themselves in the local culture, language and customs. Miguel returned to Southeast Asia (Java, Bali, India, Vietnam) in 1933, as a Guggenheim Fellow with Rosa whose photography would become part of Miguel's book, Island of Bali. The book and particularly the marketing for months surrounding its release, contributed to the 1930s Bali craze in New York.
Rosa and Miguel returned to live in Mexico City where he continued to paint, illustrate and write. Their home, Tizapán, would become a hub for visitors from around the world including the likes of Nickolas Muray, Dolores del Río, and Nelson Rockefeller. He taught ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia and was appointed artistic director and director of administration for a new department at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Palace of Fine Arts. His mandate was to add an Academy of Dance - a task to which Rosa with her dance and choreography background was most valuable. Miguel recruited friend and dancer José Limón who brought his dance company from New York City for the inaugural season in 1950, taught at Bellas Artes and helped arrange for international exposure of this new Mexican modern dance company. During Miguel's tenure, traditional Mexican dance was not only researched, documented and preserved but by this research into its roots, it helped usher in a new era in contemporary Mexican dance.
Covarrubias is known for his analysis of the pre-Columbian art of Mesoamerica, particularly that of the Olmec culture, and his theory of Mexican cultural diffusion to the north, particularly to the Mississippian Native American Indian cultures. His analysis of iconography presented a strong case that the Olmec predated the Classic Era years before this was confirmed by archaeology. His interest in anthropology went beyond the arts and beyond the Americas—Covarrubias lived in and wrote a thorough ethnography of the "Island of Bali". He shared his appreciation of foreign cultures with the world through his drawings, paintings, writings, and caricatures.
- The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans Miguel Covarrubias, 1925
- The Weary Blues Langston Hughes, (Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias) 1926
- An Anthology of the Blues W.C. Handy, (Illustrated Plates by Covarrubias) 1927
- Negro Drawings Miguel Covarrubias, 1927
- Meaning No Offense John Riddell (Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias) 1928
- Frankie & Johnny John Huston, (Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias) 1930
- Mules and Men Zora Neale Hurston, (Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias)1935
- Typee Herman Melville (Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias), Limited Editions, 1935
- Island of Bali 1937
- Mexico South 1946
- The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent - Indian Art of the Americas; North America: Alaska, Canada, the United States 1954
- Mezcala, Ancient Mexican Sculpture, with William Spratling & André Emmerich, 1956
- Indian Art of Mexico and Central America 1957
- Williams, Adriana (1994). Covarrubias. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 318. ISBN 0-292-79088-0.
- Navarrete, Sylvia (1993). Artista y Explorador Miguel Covarrubias. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. ISBN 968-29-5707-9.
- Heinzelman, Kurt; Peter Mears, Mary Panzer, Nancy Deffebach, Wendy Wick Reaves, José E. Limón (2004). The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray's Collection of Twentieth -Century Mexican Art. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70588-3.
- Ayala Canseco, Eva María; Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera, Selva Hernández, Mercurio López Casillas, Mónica López Velarde Estrada, Alfonso Miranda Márquez, Carlos Monsiváis, Adriana Williams (2005). Covarrubias Cuatro Miradas - Four Visions. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Editorial RM, S.A. de C.V., Museo Soumaya. ISBN 970-35-0179-6.
- Harry Ransom Center Exhibition on Miguel Covarrubias
- Miguel Covarrubias artwork can be viewed at American Art Archives web site
- Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia
- YouTube slide show
- "Genesis, the Gift of Life" mosaic