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Fine Arts

Napoleon’s second defeat

French mission of the Enlightenment suffered on linking royalty and slavery

Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, “View of Rio de Janeiro from Gloria Hill”, 1816-21It is not enough to be a king: one must look like one. Or, in Montesquieu’s words, “the splendor that surrounds a king is a capital part of his own power”. “More than a compliment, this thought synthesizes the symbolic dimension of any public and political power. If it is only royalty that can introduce ritual into the midst of its formal logic and in the body of the law, there is nonetheless no political system able to give up the scene, which takes on the form of theater, a great performance”, observes historian Lilia Schwarcz, author of the recently launched book, O sol do Brasil: Taunay e as desventuras dos artistas franceses na corte de D. João [The Brazilian sun: Taunay and the misadventures of the French artists in the court of King D. João] (Companhia das Letras publishing house, 412 pages, R$ 55). She is also the curator of the exhibition Taunay in Brazil: a reading of the tropics, which opened in São Paulo at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo art museum on the 17th of this month, continuing until September 7, a symptomatic date [Brazil’s Independence Day], following a season in Rio de Janeiro.

French painter Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), known as “the David of small landscapes” (in a reference to the chief historical painter of the Napoleonic period), is also the subject of two other attractive releases: Taunay no Brasil [ Taunay in Brazil] (Editora Sextante publishing house, 272 pages, R$ 98), a collection of texts by experts; and Taunay e o Brasil: Obra completa [Taunay and Brazil: complete works] (Editora Capivara publishing house, 272 pages, R$ 135), edited by Pedro Corrêa do Lago, showing the 29 pictures painted by the artist during his stay at the court of King D. João, from 1816 to 1821. “Taunay’s vision is one of the most interesting  among the several itinerant painters that passed through Brazil. It is fascinating to observe his attempt to adapt the classical compositions  he used to repeat in Europe to this new landscape in Rio de Janeiro, with details worthy of a miniaturist artist”, explains Lago. The reasons why the prestigious vice-president of the Class of Fine Arts of the Institut de France (or who was so until 1815, the year of the fall of Napoleon, to whom Taunay was connected and whose disgrace caused the artist to be ostracized, in the artistic world of the Bourbon restoration) came to Brazil put into question one of the traditional myths of our national historiography: the French Mission (to which Taunay belonged), which, according to the official version, was invited by the Portuguese monarch exiled in Brazil, with the Marquess of Marialva as an intermediary, to bring echoes of civilization to the tropics. The project, organized by Joachim le Breton, administrator of the Works of Art of the Louvre museum, foresaw the visit of a group of artists to Brazil, for the purpose of industrial and artistic teaching. Although unsuccessful, the said Mission (with all the religious weight of a civilizing nature that the name conveys) did eventually lead to the creation, in 1826, of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (Academia Imperial de Belas-Artes), a major training center for the future native artists in Brazil.

Above all, the Mission, which comprised neoclassical artists, was meant to “elevate a transmigrated court that was short of nationality models”, observes Lilia, given that the nation, being continuous, is represented as an “object of desire”, an economically, physically and emotionally palatable institution. “The images work by destroying, but also consolidating, the representations that establish the idea of a homeland and of the homeland as a home”. This was fundamental in an uncultured society, in which images conveyed senses in an oral manner and became powerful tools in the formation of representations as to how individuals perceived themselves as members of a nation. “Especially within the context in which an immigrant court struggled to maintain its sovereignty, the neoclassical painters undertook the mission of lending shape to a nation and of providing a new empire with a past and a tradition”, observes the researcher. The important point is that this initiative, contrary to what one imagines, did not emanate directly from a monarch who, being “enlightened”, wished to bring the arts and progress to his former colony, but rather from the personal effort of certain Portuguese noblemen, more concerned about the “capital part of their own power” than the Portuguese monarch was. Moreover, the desire to visit Brazil largely emanated from the French artists themselves, who, after the end of the Napoleonic empire, to which they had been committed, found themselves unemployed and in penurious situation, needing shelter at some other court, preferably in the Portuguese parts of the Americas, as the Hispanic areas appeared to be somewhat lacking in goodwill toward the former subjects of the Corsican monarch. The silent chief  catalyst of this movement was Alexander von Humboldt, an engineer and a naturalist.

In his book Essai politique sur le royaume de la nouvelle Espagne [Political essay on the kingdom of new Spain], published in 1811, the German writer described the success of the Academia de los Nobles Artes [Academy of Fine Arts], founded in Mexico in 1783 as an artistic and industrial development project. “A friend of Le Breton, Humboldt apparently influenced the Frenchman with his Mexican experiences and may even have convinced him of the possibilities of artistic progress to be found in Portuguese America. The Portuguese kingdom might become the cradle of progress and a welcoming land for artists, given the difficulties Europe was experiencing after the fall of Napoleon, who, only a short while before, had been responsible for the flight of the Portuguese court to Brazil”, observes historian Eliane Dias, who received a grant from FAPESP for her post-doctoral work at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). “It may have been Humboldt who, holding some influence at the court of King João, persuaded the Marquess of Marialva [to pursue] a project along the lines of the Mexican one. Marialva, convinced by the German, may have articulated the correspondence between Le Breton and Francisco Maria de Brito, who was responsible for diplomatic matters pertaining to the Portuguese court in Paris”, she notes. The important detail is that at no time, in the correspondence of the parties involved, does anyone actually talk about any official support from the government for this project. “Le Breton himself had personal interests in this, because of his delicate position in Paris, as he had advocated keeping in France the artistic objects that Napoleon had conquered. In 1816, he himself left for Brazil, as the head of a colony of artists, and pursuing the project presented to Brito”.

Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, “Maritime Scene in Rio de Janeiro”, 1816-21 “Unemployed artists, French fashion in the arts, a European monarchy in the Americas, a colony hitherto closed to the French and with trade potential: with all these arguments, it is more correct to think that it was the travelers who decided to come to Brazil. There would be no shortage of work, because they arrived at the time of the funeral rites of Queen D. Maria I and just before the coronation of the king D. João and the wedding of the prince D. Pedro”, completes Lilia. Given this context, Taunay, a landscape artist with experience in historical paintings, became a key figure. “It was necessary to provide the Brazilian monarchy with a new history, an original iconography. While royalty was extolled and slavery quite literally ignored, the past was recalled through images that harped on the description of grandiose flora, decorated with native Indians in idealized settings. Eden and an icon of imperial memory, the tropics emerged as a romanticized setting, as opposed to the “degraded” spectacle of miscegenation”, notes the researcher. With the French, neoclassicism arrived in Brazil. The country promptly discarded its previous passion for the Baroque style, generally produced by craftsmen of “inferior” social and racial standing. According to Lilia, Taunay was the emblematic personage of the impasses and contradictions of the alleged French Mission, because, in him, “the glorified virtues of French academia had to merge with the grandiosity of the tropics; here, vegetation carried the weight of a cathedral, while a stream (although altered in proportion) corresponded to the glorification of French monuments.”

Though a political victim of the monarchist reaction in France, Taunay’s art, the painting of landscapes, got a second wind with the return of the monarchs who, being conservative, decided to wipe out the Napoleonic past by reviving the famous acadamies. “This genre acquired a new relevance, competing with the former supremacy of historical paintings. It is within this political and artistic context that we must understand the planning of the 1816 Mission”, explains Lilia. The landscape was a fundamental element in the new romantic movement;  Enlightenment had emphasized universalism and rationality, whereas Romanticism did the opposite, stressing subjectivity and rationalism. Meanwhile, Schelling’s theories met with much success. For him, art was a privileged way to represent the essence of the new philosophy where the notion of nature was concerned. “Art was seen as a connector between the soul and nature, as a vital synthesis of both. But the philosopher encouraged close attention to visual reality while becoming acquainted with nature”, notes the author.  For the new artists, it was also advisable to seek diversity, through research into uncommon images that kept observation from resting, but that always carried out in loco. “Unfortunately, however, for Taunay, if the market favored the landscape genre, the new French sovereign was pulling away from anyone that brought Napoleon’s name to mind”. So all that was left was exile at a court that hungered for renewed legitimacy and posterity in a land of little culture.

“However, if on one hand there was the neoclassical model with its examples from Antiquity mixed with western civilization, on the other hand there was the colony underscored by slavery. Hence the boundaries of the insertion of a Mission such as this. The intended model was not achievable, and the only way out was to imagine a possible civilization, divorced from reality and drawn on paper. To make matters worse, during times of English dominance, a group of Frenchmen who sympathized with Napoleon was not regarded favorably”, notes Lilia. Thus, none of what had been planned was carried out and the artists soon fell into an apathetic state, being employed for festivities and the rituals of royalty. Taunay made the most of his time by painting Rio de Janeiro landscapes and suffering, as an “enlightened son of the French Revolution”, the nightmare of having to “gild the pill” in an uncultured land  where, in order to advance, its was necessary to “own blacks and, therefore, the money to buy these blacks”.

Hence his idealized dedication to the image of the countryside. “Countering bourgeois life, there was the landscape, untouched by men. The image of the countryside was a didactic device to talk about true values: work, piety as a virtue of a united family”, says the author. Ongoing slavery was a limitation and, therefore, vegetation became greater than men, who where shown as tiny. In their place one finds the beauty of the landscape. “All of the environment is inflated so as to diminish the role and the place of slavery that is almost a voiceless scene and certainly passive”. Suffice it to see the picture “Cascatinha da Tijuca” [The little Tijuca waterfall] to understand Taunay’s dilemma, symbol of the Mission’s dilemma; here the artist depicts himself painting at a gathering with his slaves, painted as tiny, almost invisible figures, an allegory of the ideology of the artist hidden in the midst of the forest. Even this reproduces (in the painting and in the artist’s life) the French woods of Montmorency, where the painter lived in a house that had belonged to Rousseau. “The educational nature of the work shows the Enlightenment tradition of which Taunay was a product, even though the Brazilian slave system was a powerful obstacle to this notion”, notes Eliane. It is within the allegorical world, made out of paint and paper, that the exiled court would, perhaps, have liked to have lived and by which it wanted to be remembered for posterity.  But, of course, with far larger and stronger slaves to serve it.