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Jose Miguel Ruelas (Mexican-American 1901 – 1930)

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

What a Life, c. 1930, mixed media on board, 18 x 24 inches, signed lower left; titled on label; exhibited at The San Francisco Art Association Fifty-Second Annual Exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, May, 1930 (label verso)


About the Painting

What a Life is a time capsule. Filled with every imaginable symbol of the Roaring Twenties, Ruelas presents a cornucopia of youth- and beauty-obsessed modern America, from flappers, flashy show girls, pristine skyscrapers, powerful factories, and fast cars to gambling, prohibition era alcohol, tobacco and, of course, money, lots of money. And, in the middle of the composition is a crowned human skull sitting above an overturned paying card of a Joker. This is the world of Gatsby on steroids. Likely painted just months after the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, What a Life seems to pose a deeply personal question for the artist. “Ergo Sumo Ego” (which translates to “Therefore, I chose”) is written on the book binding at the base of the painting. As the Roaring Twenties came to an end and the darkness of the Great Depression descended on the country, many found themselves in a position of having to make profound choices. Ruelas struggled with mental health challenges and chose not to go on. His suicide on November 1, 1930, was national news.

About the Artist

Jose Miguel Ruelas was born in 1901 in Mexico to a Spanish mother and a Mexican father. His father (also named Miguel Ruelas) was a well-known former General in the Mexican army who later became the editor of the San Francisco-based Spanish language journal Hispano America. The family came to the US in 1914 during the early days of the Mexican revolution. Although uncertainty remains, it is likely the younger Ruelas received his art training in the Bay area in the 1920s. By 1930, the US Census listed Ruelas as a professional artist. Like many of his contemporaries, Ruelas worked as a commercial artist and graphic designer. He served as the artistic director of a San Francisco engraving firm.


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