Transnational hillbillies

Dissertation contends that Almeida Junior created his celebrated caipira figures in dialogue with the naturalist painting produced in Europe

Partida da monção (1897): faint colors and surface without luster

Paulista Museum - USP / Photo Hélio Nobre / José Rosael Partida da monção (1897): faint colors and surface without lusterPaulista Museum - USP / Photo Hélio Nobre / José Rosael

A paulista from the city of Itu, painter José Ferraz de Almeida Junior (1859-1899) was the late 19th century pioneer of a genre that portrayed Brazilian hillbillies (caipiras). Although the topic is genuinely Brazilian, the technique he used owes much to the procedures the artist learned abroad during stays in France and in dialogues with European artists. This is the idea advanced by historian Fernanda Mendonça Pitta, curator of the Pinacoteca of São Paulo, in her doctoral dissertation entitled A peaceful and bucolic people: custom, history and imaginary in Almeida Junior’s painting, developed from 2010-2013 at the Visual Arts Department of the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). The researcher challenges the traditional concept—based on analyses by critics such as modernists Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade, as well as José Bento Monteiro Lobato—that associated the artist’s production with the fact that he was from the inland areas of the state and interpreted his paintings as a reflection of his personal experiences and memories.

Art historian Rodrigo Naves, holder of a PhD in esthetics from the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH), explains that critics traditionally appreciated the works of Almeida Júnior because they considered it to be representative of the Brazilian identity, and the theory presented by Pitta confronts that more chauvinistic viewpoint. Although other researchers have analyzed Almeida Júnior’s paintings from a more artistic, less ideological perspective—among them Aracy Amaral, a professor of art history at the USP School of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU-USP)—Naves says that Pitta’s study is the first to offer a more comprehensive view of Almeida Júnior’s relationship with European painting.

Amolação interrompida (1894): emphasis on small gestures

Collection of the Pinacoteca of the State of São Paulo | Photos Isabella Matheus Amolação interrompida (1894): emphasis on small gesturesCollection of the Pinacoteca of the State of São Paulo | Photos Isabella Matheus

Percival Tirapeli, a professor at the Arts Institute of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), says that until the mid-1980s, research studies on Almeida Júnior were, in general, panoramic. Many of them reported on his life and works. Beginning in the 1990s, academic studies began to focus on specific works, which enabled them to delve deeper into esthetic questions. Art historian Tadeu Chiarelli, director of the Pinacoteca, professor at the ECA-USP and advisor for the dissertation, says that the significance of Pitta’s study is that it re-evaluates the position of Almeida Júnior in the general context of Brazilian art: once considered an artist hostile to foreign influences and “authentically” Brazilian, he now comes to be thought of as a painter who was attentive to the international context. “The contextualizations anchored in her research of the European artistic milieu represent a new aspect when compared with previous studies on the painter,” Chiarelli says.

For some time, Almeida Júnior was one of the few painters who worked in the rural regions of São Paulo State—he lived and had an atelier in Itu. In 1888, he moved to the city of São Paulo and set up a new atelier. In those days, artists from all over Brazil sought to get established in Rio de Janeiro, site of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, which made it easier for them to make contact with the Court. Because of the São Paulo painter’s supposed fidelity to his environment, modernists placed him at the center of the debate about the need to invent a genuinely Brazilian identity. “Those critics tried to isolate Almeida Júnior from contact with European techniques and topics and maintained that he did not let himself be influenced by foreign elements,” Pitta explains.

The historian studied four works produced by the artist from 1888-1897: Caipiras negaceando (belonging to the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, in Rio), Caipira picando fumo, Amolação interrompida (both at the Pinacoteca) and Partida da monção (from USP’s Paulista Museum). She employed as her starting point the master’s thesis “Revendo Almeida Júnior” (Revisiting Almeida Júnior), by Maria Cecília França Lourenço, a professor at FAU-USP, who from 1973 to 1981 completed the first survey of the production by that artist and the criticism and studies published about him. In 1983, Lourenço took over the directorship of the Pinacoteca. She is now coordinating a project that will update the catalog of the painter’s works.

Caipira picando fumo (1893): the figure takes after the modernists and Monteiro Lobato

Collection of the Pinacoteca of the State of São Paulo / Photos Isabella Matheus Caipira picando fumo (1893): the figure takes after the modernists and Monteiro LobatoCollection of the Pinacoteca of the State of São Paulo / Photos Isabella Matheus

The studies by Lourenço already contested the view held by the modernists who knew that the painter had studied in France, but argued that he had deliberately protected himself from foreign influences. “However, the watercolor tints in paintings like Partida da monção were not employed by other Brazilian painters,” she says. She says that Almeida Júnior sought to maintain lightness of the canvases and prevent what he called “over-finishing,” characterized by a smooth appearance that hid the brush strokes. The effect, an absence of luster, Lourenço says was common in both mural and decorative painting, predominately in Europe, styles that Almeida Júnior drew upon.

In addition to the studies by Lourenço, Pitta consulted works by Chiarelli. He maintains that, as part of the general trend toward renewal encouraged by critics, Brazilian historical painting by artists like Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo gave way to figures and customs from Brazilian folk culture by the late 19th century.

Pitta showed that in Caipira picando fumo and Amolação interrompida the artist had adopted pictorial techniques from French naturalism that consisted of rubbing the pigment almost dry on the canvas so that it would impregnate the fabric directly. This made the whites stand out dramatically, giving the viewer the impression that the figures were three-dimensional and emphasizing the rusticity and unrefined character of the painting. The traditional procedure at the time was to spread layers of semi-transparent paint, superimposing them to hide the brush strokes and help simulate depth.

Pitta argues that those techniques were learned by the painter during his stay in Europe from 1876-1882, when he studied at the École de Beaux Arts in Paris on a scholarship offered by Emperor Dom Pedro II, and during his subsequent visits to the continent. In his training in Brazil, Almeida Júnior had learned only the procedures taught at the academy, such as methods for copying the works by masters from the Renaissance or the Baroque periods and the conventional treatment of religious and historical themes.

Caipiras negaceando (1888): Dark background, painted prior to his contact with European painting

National School of Fine Arts IBREM/MINC – Almeida Jr. 1888 / Photo Jaime Acioli Caipiras negaceando (1888): Dark background, painted prior to his contact with European paintingNational School of Fine Arts IBREM/MINC – Almeida Jr. 1888 / Photo Jaime Acioli

Muted paintings
In Partida da monção, Pitta found that Almeida Júnior had radicalized the use of the methods he had absorbed in Europe and that is work now resembled the decorative painting by the French painter Puvis de Chavannes (1828-1894). The points of convergence involved technical questions and the way of arranging people on the canvasses. Following the example of the Frenchman, Almeida Júnior adopted light colors devoid of any effects of contrast, and chose compositions that had no obvious protagonists; groups of people are arranged so as to direct attention toward the brief stories being told, rather than to grandiose gestures. Another element in which he resembled Chavannes is that some figures were merely sketched in outline, with little definition of facial features or details. “The painting by Almeida Júnior is a muted painting, and the same was also said of the works by Chavannes,” the historian observes.

Pitta questions the idea that late 19th century critics and public were fascinated by the artist’s peasants because the personages were said to be the representation of the “paulista soul.” To Pitta the attraction to those figures stemmed from the fact that, on the one hand, they represented the regional culture but, on the other hand, they were gradually disappearing. “In the ideology of the time, the figure of the caipira was a symbol of a past that needed to be overcome, while the preserving the memories because of their usefulness in creating an identity,” she emphasizes. To support that argument, Pitta referred to studies on the works by French painter Jean-François Milliet (1814-1875), according to which the peasants portrayed by the artist were said to represent the essence of France, just as, in Brazil, Almeida Júnior’s peasants were considered to be symbolize the paulista soul.

A peaceful and bucolic people: custom, history and imaginary in Almeida Junior’s painting (nº 2010/09282-0); Grant mechanism Doctoral degree scholarship; Principal Investigator Domingos Tadeu Chiarelli (ECA-USP); Investment R$117,819.00.