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The beau of the tropics

The effort of Manuel Araújo Porto-Alegre to civilize the nation with culture

Painter, architect, sculptor, urbanist, thinker on culture, playwright, journalist, critic and art historian. Each one of the many facets of the intense production of Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre (1806-1879), a central figure of the Brazilian Empire, has already been addressed in specific works prepared by different researchers. A new work of research intends to demonstrate, by means of an investigation of the extensive documentation left by Porto-Alegre in these areas, how it is possible to find, in this myriad of interests, a cohesive vision of the work of this romantic artist, who believed in a project to civilize Brazil by means of the arts, above all the visual arts. The thesis, defended by Letícia Squeff at the History Department of USP’s School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, is coming out now as a book, O Brasil nas letras de um pintor [Brazil in the letters of a painter], from Unicamp’s publishing house (277 pages, R$ 39.50), with a publication grant from FAPESP.

“Besides presenting a non-segmented view about Porto-Alegre’s production, I wanted to show precisely that, for having acted in such different areas, he managed to spread his project for a nation over these fields”, Letícia explains. To give an account of the artist’s extensive activity, the researcher worked on documents found in important archives from Rio de Janeiro, such as the National Historical Archives, the archives of the Brazilian Historical Geographical Institute (IHGB), the João VI Archives, of the National Fine Arts School, and the Archives of the Imperial Museum, of Petropolis. In this last one, he found some little known documents, such as the album of mementos that belonged to Porto-Alegre’s wife, Paulina Delamare Porto-Alegre, the Baroness of Santo Ângelo. As used to be the custom for the wives of prominent personalities of the Empire, the baroness collected letters, drawings, paintings and documents that showed the importance of Porto-Alegre for imperial society since their wedding (1838) to his death (1883). Amongst the documents, records of handwriting exercises of the emperor and his sisters, verses by Gonçalves Dias and Gonçalves de Magalhães, letters from Debret, João VI and others.  A member of the so-called first romantic generation, of which his great friends Sales Torres Homem and Domingos José Gonçalves Magalhães were also part, Porto-Alegre betted on culture and art as ways of characterizing the country that had just come to birth with the independence, in 1822.

For him, artistic activities, such as culture and illustration, would produce fundamental effects for imperial society, freeing itself for once and for all from a certain obscurantism of the colonial past. “There remain no doubts that this was a conscious project, which Porto-Alegre wanted to put into practice in all his literary and artistic production”, the researcher comments. The romantic trio founded important publications that acted as vehicles for these ideas, by means of scientific, philosophical and historical articles and articles about the arts. There were the cases of Nitheroy: Revista Brasiliense de Ciências, Letras e Artes [Brazilian Magazine of Sciences, Literature and Arts] (1836), Minerva Brasiliense: Jornal de Ciências, Letras e Artes [Brazilian Minerva: Newspaper of Sciences, Literature and Arts] (1843-1845) and, finally, Guanabara: Revista Mensal Artística, Científica e Literária [Guanabara: Monthly Artistic, Scientific and Literary Magazine] (1849-1856), which became a sort of  ‘official gazette of Romanticism’.

Besides his journalistic activity, Porto-Alegre produced literature and theater, with some of his plays, like Os lavernos (1863), responsible for savage attacks on imperial society. In this one, for example, he addressed issues like marriage for money, covetousness for luxury and others. The fact reveals an apparent contradiction, since, in several fields and moments, Porto-Alegre exalted the Empire, and was even part of a group of courtiers around Pedro II – for whom, amongst other things, he designed, as an architect and artist, the veranda and the clothes used by the monarch during the consecration ceremony of the young emperor. “This is just one of the contradictions that accompanied Porto-Alegre’s life”, claims Letícia. “His whole generation experienced these contradictions, since they went to Europe to look for cultural points of reference and had to relate all this with what was on the other side of the Atlantic: a nation created a short time ago, a monarchy embedded in the tropics.”

The author highlights the creativity with which Araújo Porto-Alegre incorporated European values into the Brazilian colonial past. “He was the first to indicate the importance of the slaves for an understanding of Brazilian culture, an expedient so useful to the modernists later on”, she comments. Other contradictions of Porto-Alegre were the markedly realistic tone of his plays – while he was a romantic –, as well as the humor he imparted to publications like Lanterna Mágica: Periódico Plástico Filosófico [Magic Lantern: Philosophical Plastic Periodical (1845) – it is said that Porto-Alegre was a serious fellow, grave, even.  A disciple of Jean-Baptiste Debret, with whom he traveled to Europe for the first time in 1831, Porto-Alegre arrived in Rio de Janeiro before the end of the First Reign, coming from the Province of Rio Grande do Sul.  Graduated in the first year’s intake of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy (Aiba) – which he ran years later –, he settled in the Empire, as a painter, although from an early age he had taken part in meetings that discussed politics and also acted as veritable literary soirées. Besides the strong friendship, there are indications that Porto-Alegre and Debret had developed a relationship of filiation, the first having lost his father and the second, his son. “In Paris, seeing Porto-Alegre’s financial difficulties, Debret managed to have the young man study with his architect brother free of charge”, says Letícia.

Having portrayed Emperor Pedro I in 1830, Porto-Alegre was appointed, in 1840, soon after the coming of age of Pedro, painter of the Imperial Chamber. In the busy years that followed the proclamation of the coming of age, marked by major reforms, festivals and by the foundation of various institutions, he practically dominated, on his own, all the ventures that included, for them to be carried out, the so-called ‘fine arts’. He did the decoration of the imperial nuptials, in 1843, besides having been commissioned to take care of the internal decoration of the palace in Petrópolis. He was also concerned with the city of Rio de Janeiro, which, he believed, ought to act as a scenario for the new society that was consolidating itself.

Such was the emperor’s trust in Porto-Alegre that, when the latter became the director of Aiba in 1854, the monarch gave him unconditional political and financial support for him to implement the most import reform undergone by the academy in the monarchical period. With 5 contos of reis a year available for restructuring it, Porto-Alegre refurbished the building internally, adding the second floor and constructing installations for the art gallery and for the specialized library. He also drew up new statutes for the institution, which addressed in great detail a broad range of aspects: the content of the disciplines; the prerogatives of all the institution’s professionals, from the director, through the professors and the curator of the art gallery, to the doorman and the guard; the days with lessons and the quantity of holidays; the public exhibitions, the award-givings, and the patronage in Europe; the attendance of the pupils and the punishment for indiscipline.

The new rules perfected some of the Aiba’s disciplines, which up until then had been poorly structured. Besides the chairs already existing – architecture, sculpture, engraving, drawing, landscaping and anatomy –, lessons were created for geometrical drawing, ornamental drawing, applied mathematics and the history of the fine arts. In this last field too, Porto-Alegre performed a fundamental role. Because of his writings for the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute and of critiques written for the periodicals of Rio de Janeiro, he is regarded as the founder of the national art history and criticism. “Porto-Alegre was the first to introduce into Brazil the romantic notion of the artist. Up until them, those who produced the visual arts were not considered in their individuality”, Letícia explains.

Although he was not an extraordinary painter – there is consensus about the superiority of his drawings –, Porto-Alegre advocated that the visual arts could legitimate the interests of the Empire. “He insisted on the emperor’s support for painters, since they were capable of synthesizing, in plastic terms, the Empire. The importance of Porto-Alegre in Brazilian culture of the 19th century is precisely that: he highlighted the meaning of a figurative culture for consolidating the monarchic State and its dearest values”, Letícia emphasizes.  There was also the weight of the influence of his master Debret in his preferences for the classical values. “Porto-Alegre left to his contemporaries and to posterity the notion of a national monument”, the researcher adds. “It was he who forwarded to the government the first proposal for executing the statue of Pedro I, which was to result in the enormous sculpture Equestrian statue of Pedro I (1862).” Hence the hypothesis of Porto-Alegre having had a great influence on his son-in-law, Pedro Américo, who produced the famous canvas Independence or death.
Monumentality that was not reflected in Porto-Alegre’s life. The titles that the good relations with the Emperor had earned him were not translated into resources, and he died poor, without leaving any assets for his family.