When he was born, Lam's father, a Chinese tradesman born in Canton, was eighty-four years old, and lived to be a hundred and eight. His mother was Cuban of African and Spanish descent, and Wifredo was one of eight children. From 1920 to 1923 Lam first studied at the Academy San Alejandro in Havana. In 1924 he went to Madrid to complete his education, continuing his studies under Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, curator of the Prado Museum, and showing his first works at the Vilches Gallery. Having lost his wife and child to tuberculosis in 1931, he was obsessed with the theme of tragic motherhood, making numerous paintings of grieving mothers and children. In 1938 he moved to Paris, and his exhibition the following year at Galerie Pierre aroused the enthusiasm of Picasso, who took him under his wing.
During the war, Lam fled Paris for Marseille, then left France by ship in 1941, accompanied by Breton, André Masson and Claude Levi-Strauss. After a forced stopover in Martinique—where he met the poet and politician Aimé Césaire—Lam reached Havana, where he would stay until 1952, evoking its flora and fauna in his work and associating them with a demonology, as in the painting Noces (1947, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and Végétation tropicale (1948, Moderna Museet, Stockholm). In 1942, the jungle paintings that would establish his reputation were shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. In 1951 he received First Prize at the Salon Nacional of Havana, and the Prix Lissone in Italy, in 1953. Lam led a cosmopolitan life—he traveled frequently in France, Italy and the United States and was a member of the Graham Foundation in Chicago. In 1960 he married Lou Laurin and from then on divided his time between his apartment in Paris and his house near Genoa. Hailed by Fidel Castro in May 1963 as the great Cuban national painter, his picture Le Tiers Monde (1966) hangs in the presidential palace in Havana. Lam published a series of color engravings, titled Images (1962, Carlo Grosetti, Milan), illustrated several books and was given retrospectives in Basel, in 1966, and at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, in 1967. Aimé Césaire wrote, "Wifredo Lam does not look. He feels. He feels the great tropical sap flowing through his thin body and his vibrant branches, rich with challenges."
Shortly after his death, on March 23,1983, the Centre Georges-Pompidou held a retrospective of his work. Posthumous exhibitions revealed various aspects of his work; for example, the shows, Lam métis, at the Musée Dapper in Paris, in 2002, and Lam et les poètes, in 2005, at the Musee Campredon-Maison René Char in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France, which explored his talent as an illustrator.
Born 1902 in Sagua, Cuba; died 1982 in Paris.