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The body of art of a 19th-century master

Called a “renaissance man,” Araújo Porto-Alegre attempted to set the stage for a Brazilian art school

Mata virgem (Virgin forest), circa 1850-1860, pencil and watercolor on paper

IMS public domain imageMata virgem (Virgin forest), circa 1850-1860, pencil and watercolor on paperIMS public domain image

As a key figure in the plan to establish a national culture in 19th-century Brazil, Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre (1806-1879) is – paradoxically – the victim of an unfortunate Brazilian tendency to perpetuate myths and take shortcuts in research. Faced with the difficulty of gathering together his far-flung works and comprehending how someone can be a neoclassicist and a romanticist, an artist, literary figure and public man, painter of history and advocate of watercolors and of tropical nature studies all at the same time, many generations were content to simply allow him to have his fame without questioning his achievements, without pointing out his contradictions and without observing the set of his works from close up. So difficult was it that only now, more than two centuries after his birth, Barão de Santo Ângelo (as he was also known) is having his first one-man show in the main building of the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS) in Rio de Janeiro.

Based on an album from the artist acquired by the Institute in 2008, the show, entitled Araújo Porto-Alegre Singular & Plural, also includes works provided by several national institutions, such as the National Library, the National History Museum, the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Julio de Castilhos Museum. Due to space limitations, the exhibit in Rio is small, but the show in São Paulo, which will open officially in June, will boast more than 100 paintings, engravings, drawings and watercolors along with a broader curatorial cross-section. However, even now, thanks to a large catalog with more than 360 pages, the diversity of the themes, techniques, styles and media that Porto-Alegre used as his career progressed has become evident.

Estudo para uma cena de batalha (Study for a battle scene), undated, pencil, India ink and watercolor on paper

Drawings IMS public domain imageEstudo para uma cena de batalha (Study for a battle scene), undated, pencil, India ink and watercolor on paperDrawings IMS public domain image

The publication, which brings together a considerable amount of iconographic material, also includes a selection of unpublished essays signed by guest researchers from many fields. The catalog scrutinizes different aspects of Porto-Alegre’s career path, for example: his relationship with the teacher Debret (Valéria Picolli); the importance he attributes to tropical landscapes as the symbol of Brazil and the coexistence of neoclassical formation and romantic sensitivity (Claudia Valadão de Mattos); his reflections on music (Paulo M. Kuhl); and a critical rereading of the difficult and paradoxical work of the first generation of romanticists – of which Porto-Alegre is part – who symbolically founded a Brazilian nationality (João Cezar de Castro Rocha).

Another unquestionable value of the publication is that it compiles and makes accessible a large number of texts written by Araújo Porto-Alegre that had been difficult to locate yet essential for cultural historians in general. Actually, Porto-Alegre is a nearly omnipresent figure in 19th-century Brazilian history. He was in the first group of students at the Imperial School of Fine Arts (Aiba) and later a teacher and director of the school. He was also the beloved student of Jean-Baptiste Debret, and he traveled to France with him in 1831. He did not limit himself to the visual arts, however: He was an architect, scenographer, writer, playwright, music and art critic (a pioneer in the effort to start a Brazilian art school), member of the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute (IHGB) and protégé of Dom Pedro I and his son, Dom Pedro II. He was also a consul of Brazil abroad, etc.

Cher compagnon de voyage (Dear travel companion), 1834, pencil on paper

Drawings IMS public domain imageCher compagnon de voyage (Dear travel companion), 1834, pencil on paperDrawings IMS public domain image

Although this eclecticism (it comes as no surprise that he was called a “renaissance man” by an adversary) is to a great extent responsible for the widely held idea that he was a mediocre artist, it nonetheless helped to elucidate his rich career path and the tumultuous period in which he lived. Letícia Squeff, whose master’s work was devoted to studying Porto-Alegre’s critical production, was able to understand the softer side of his efforts through contact with his works of art. “We are attempting to treat him more holistically,” explains Squeff, curator of the exhibit in partnership with Júlia Kovensky, coordinator of iconography at the IMS. “The only reason he was not a better artist was because to him, art was present in everything,” she says in an attempt to explain the unending criticism of the quality of his painting. In a text published in the catalog, Rafael Cardoso raises an interesting flag about the error of relegating the works on paper to a lower status: “The only explanation for the erroneous thinking that insists on relegating anything that is not painting (using an easel), sculpture and architecture to the status of ‘minor art’ is that he did not research in detail his watercolors and drawings, or his caricatures whose importance is unparalleled, or his scenographic sketches and projects for that matter.”