José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud, known as Miguel Covarrubias was born on November 22, 1904, in Mexico City, Mexico. After graduating from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at the age of 14, he started producing caricatures and illustrations for texts and training materials published by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education.
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. In her book Covarrubias, author Adriana Williams writes that Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and New York Times critic/photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to New York's literary/cultural elite (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 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. He also spent time in China, where his work was very influential among artists in Shanghai.
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 the 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 his 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
Miguel Covarrubias died in Mexico City, Mexico on February 4, 1957.