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A thesis reveals how Jean-Baptiste Debret wanted, through his work, to trace a biography of Brazil, a country that he had admired with illuminist impetus

MUSEUS CASTRO MAYA / IBPC-RJThe Interior of the Gypsy House: paintings that attest to testimonial presence of the painter MUSEUS CASTRO MAYA / IBPC-RJ

Close your eyes and create, in your imagination, at the images of Rio during colonial times: I bet they will be like the works of Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), with his blacks, fountains, tail-coated noblemen and ladies in litter who will come to your head. In spite of populating our imagination, what do really we know about him and about his work where all of these figures are shown, the Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil (Picturesque and Historic Journey to Brazil), published by the artist between 1834 and 1839? The temptation is to classify him as just one more of those innumerable travelers who came to the country in order to describe to the Europeans its exoticism and backwardness.

“He, contrary to the others, truly loved Brazil and understood it deeply the fifteen years that he spent here. On being shown the Brazilian customs, he wanted to associate them into a project for the correction of a territory that, according to him, merited being among the greatest of Europe”, states Valeria Alves Esteves Lima in her recently defended doctorate thesis at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), The Picturesque and History Journey of Debret: a New Reading, which had FAPESP’s financial support.

In it the researcher reveals that the masterly work of Debret, of images and texts, was the fruit of a personal project by the artist, who intended much more than just to document the country, but to write the “Brazilian biography”, based on his illuminist beliefs (inherited from contact with the painter Jacques-Louis David, who was his master) and from a long personal experience of living in the Royal Court and the people of old Rio. Thus, Debret the historian appears. “Instead of taking in the images of what he saw as data that illustrated an experience during a journey, Debret elaborated a thinking about Brazil and authenticated its images on speaking to the public through his reflections”, Valeria observes.

“Thus, it is not simply a trajectory or a journey that he is describing, but an intellectual project about the march of civilization in Brazil”, the professor analyzes. Or in the words of Debret himself: the progressive march of civilization, as the painter/writer wrote in volume 2 of A Picturesque and History Journey to Brazil. A son of Illuminism, for Debret the idea of progress was irreversible; even if the reality before his eyes (and even more clearly before ours, by way of his lithographs) he didn’t show the country of the future, but of theold-fashioned world.

“For him, the idea of advancement could harbor periods of stagnation, but they would be overcome and regeneration, which is the process to which he refers and through which Brazil was passing through after the arrival of the Royal Family to Rio”, the researcher says. “It was necessary to illustrate the habits and customs of old fashioned Brazil so that there would be no doubt about the advance of civilization, promoted through the House of Bragança in Brazil.”

Even more so because there was a gap between his arrival in the country in 1816 (at forty-eight years of age, a mature and well prepared artist) with the French mission, and his return to France in 1831 (then sixty-three years of age) and the almost eight years in which he carefully dedicated his work. The professor alerts us to an almost generally forgotten aspect of Debret: the text that accompanies the images of Picturesque Journey. “He himself stated that ‘what one unveils the other complements.’ If the images had an autonomous life, his writing spoke bout a Brazil that had changed since the drafting of those images, of how there had been transformation and progress”, Valeria notes. “Without the text, the image of Brazil that he so lovingly registered would be contrary to what he had intended.”

Fundamental detail: In Europe, Debret practically did not alter the watercolors that he painted in the country during his stay. Once again, the historian appears alongside the artist. However, a historian somewhat partial and far involved in the theme. Worried about his Brazilian project, he made a selection of the material, selecting what interested him to prove his vision of the country’s future and to further spread his ideas, he transforms his water colors into lithographs, a means of spreading his ideas more cheaply and more widely. The world needed to know the Brazil that he had loved.

Modern illuminist
But this national love had profound European roots. Born in Paris in 1768, Debret frequented the Jacques-Louis David studio, where he learned that, in illuminist modernity, the artistic ideal lay in the triad of art, politics and history. “With David he learned that art needs to attend to the necessities of the moment and that the artist is, in this sense, responsible for the adjustment between art and history”, Valeria observes. “Therefore Debret the historian appears at the moment of the elaboration of the texts and in the organization of the material for publication”, she evaluates.

“In this phase, which is that of making explicit his view of Brazil, Debret makes the effort to give to his registrations a historic update that they no longer had and that could jeopardize the desired content of his theme.” David was also one of the pillars of art-testimony of neo-classical esthetics: the artist has to show, whenever possible, that which he had mirrored. In order to show Marat dead in his bathroom, it is necessary to see him in a bath of blood. History painted in its moment.

Brazilian reality
In the steps of his master, Debret transformed himself into a painter of historic scenes and this would his destiny on his arrival in Brazil along with other French colleagues: among all of them it would be Debret, because of his choice, who would have the guaranteed access to powerful people who wanted to see themselves mirrored for posterity. Due to that, he made many adversaries among his French peers who felt weakened when faced with the importance acquired by the painter. This helped to boost even further the career of an artist who had arrived in Brazil to teach the methodology that was dominant in European lands. During 1826, he transformed himself into the soul of the Fine Arts Academy.

“It was at that point, acquiring a growing knowledge about the problems and reforms of the country, that he gained a very clear vision about the reality of Brazil. Debret talked with monarchs, ministers, politicians and, at the same time, received students from different parts of the country who told him details of their regions that he did not know, but that he could describe in his book”, Valeria explains. “As well, he was able to count upon the assistance of European travelers, but, contrary to them, he had personal experience that went much further and did not restrict him to a mere description of day to day scenes, but he reflected about them.”

Once again the presence of David: what we see in his images is not a copy of reality but a verisimilitude that attests to the presence of the painter at that moment. There is a subtle complexity in this portrayal almost faithful to the streets and the court, which seems to be moving before our eyes, even after centuries, but, at the same time, is the fruit of a conscious option of the painter, intrinsically linked to that of his projection of a vision of the nation’s future.

Diderot, another illuminist, had already called attention to the “libertinism of reason”, the thought that wants rational and precision sooner than the ideal. “The link with reality is only one of the aspects of composition, whose result incorporates a long effort of reflection and a well traced out network of intentions”, Valeria says.

Slight disloyalty
From there onwards, there is the slight disloyalty to idealism in his images of the Brazilian Indians, which he hardly saw and whose painting did not fit into the “testimonial” role of David. “He knew them from reports by others and from visits to museums where he could see artifacts and clothing. And it was from this urban space that he would go on to take the facts and events that were important to his historic works of art”, she says. “Thus, in his interpretation of the Brazilian population, he practically abandoned the idea of a savage and exotic population. His evaluation of the Brazilian is not that of an individual marked by a constant and direct relationship with nature.”

Indeed, nature only appears as long as it is sensitive to the dominion of man’s action, modified and tamed by progress. His images of the natives are the fruit of his projection: from the start, they appear in their exotic and primitive guise, but, all through the images (and later on in time) he prefers to paint modified Indians’ and, from his point of view “improved” – through contact with civilization. When he shows Indian dwellings and artifacts, it is only for the purpose that the reader will feel that this stage has already been overcome by progress.

“According to his reading, civilization was the overcoming of a natural phase that impeded the advance of the innate qualities of the Brazilian. Hence the urgency to organize his historic past, arranged in volumes of his Journey, in such a manner as to make evident to the European that this inevitable path leads to progress in Brazil”, the researcher notes. “The first volume of the Journey was dedicated to the indigenous population, in a non-civilized state, but at the same time, the point of origin of the civilized population: it is starting from the uncivilized that Debret’s illuminist thinking is going to interpret the advance of civilization in Brazil”, she adds. In the end, there is nothing more adequate than to prove, by way of the power of time, the idealism of irreversible progress, even from the worst of starting conditions.

In the same manner, the scenery always disappears when it might jeopardize the reader who wants his images to be held by the European public. “Nature, the space from which the idea of the Brazilian man was born among the majority of the travelers and interpreters of the country, was for him the dominion of civilized man. Its richness and its savage and untamed character also served his necessities, whether it be as spaces for growth, or as models for the painting of scenery and history”, the researcher observes. Even in the most exotic and picturesque forest, civilized man is stronger.

Masters and slaves
There is, therefore, in this idealism of progress something retrograded to our modern eyes, an inaudible feeling of respect for those blacks. “In this country everything goes back to the black slave”, Debret writes. More than ever before, the desire to faithfully reflect in the Journey “the character and the habits of the Brazilians in general” comes up and, in this manner, it would be impossible to look at the black in another perspective that is not that of his supreme importance in the majority of the customs and activities of the colony. “There is in the iconographic representation of the blacks a physical and moral force that survives the denigrating comments of Debret. The classical model that is used to picture them, raised them in the eyes of those who view his paintings”, the author observes. For the French painter, concerned about Brazil’s future, the mixture of races had a fundamental function, through the union of the physical force of the blacks and the “superior intellect” of the whites. Thanks as well to him we can perceive the intimacy between masters and slaves in the master home whose consequences were so well described by Gilberto Freyre.

Nevertheless, on the question of slavery, the well intentioned historian fell into a trap of contradictions between his discourse and beliefs and the terrible reality. “Our imagery of this world gains a comfortable aspect from the water colors of Debret”, Valeria says. Thus, even when painting a slave punished in a realistic manner, text and image harmonize together as part of the greater projection of the illuminist: the scene is heinous and shocking, but the text states that the penalty to which the slave is being submitted on the tree trunk had been within the limits of the law. The liberalism of Debret raised to the extreme enters into shock with his vision of reality.

“He ends up creating, as a historian, a comfortable idealistic reality, wanting us to believe that we had been faced with a country in formation and that it had been preparing for the future”, the researcher concludes. Two centuries later, Stefan Zweig, in O País do Futuro (The Country of the Future), would attempt to show the same thing, without any great success.