Columbano sought to represent a humanised figure of Camões, dressed in a distinctive costume, displaying the attitude of a Renaissance prince – not very solemn, but grandiose – and adopting a pose of studied elegance, close to that found in Flemish painting, or in the elegant portraits of Van Dyck. The dramatic contrast, heightened by the dark colours of this figure and the female nudes of the Tágides, who display “the wavy elegance of the sea” (T. Coelho, 1893), make this situation possible, given that it acquires the symbolic nature of an allegory. Its effect takes on truly enormous proportions because of the evidence of its real dimensions, contrasted with a convincing colloquial naturalness, which brings the poet closer to mythological figures, in a similar way to the human spontaneity of the Venus at her Mirror, by Velázquez.
A study for this painting presents a group of five Tágides and a greater contrast between Camões’ spectral appearance and the undefined spaces, in the areas of the patches of paint, spread through the elements of Nature, in a pictorial and atmospheric dimension of rarefied elements – the sand, sea and clouds that envelop the figures. The dark palette of colours limits this study to tones of brown and black, heavily contrasting with the brighter tones, and heightens the drama of the painting in a uniform manner, not only in the figure of the poet, but also in the paining of Nature and its elements. The autonomy presented in the figure combines with the chromatic density of the other aspects and highlights the pleasure that Columbano derived from his painting practice. The sinuous lines of the nymphs underline the dynamic impression of their gestures, far removed from the conveniently formal figuration of the final work, which remained faithful to the demands imposed by the generals who constantly criticised him, as well as to the model herself, whom he later married, in 1911, Emília (Bordalo Pinheiro).
Although the idea of the sharply contrasted compositional scheme suggests some baroque practices, it also expresses an approach that is close to that of symbolism, explored in the literature and underlined by the Tower of Belém, a 16th-century monument identified with the voyages undertaken in the course of the Portuguese overseas discoveries. At the same time, Courbet’s painting in his studio, a “real allegory” dating from 1854-55, and the scandalous figurative contrast presented in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, in 1863, also contributed to the conceptualisation of this painting, which might have been included in a Camões Palace, as part of a project that was never implemented, just as he was never to achieve the publication of an illustrated edition of The Lusiads, one of the painter’s “most golden dreams” in the 1980s. This painting was exhibited in 1994 at the Livraria Gomes bookshop, in Chiado, appearing at a widely publicised and eagerly awaited event that sought to approach three themes considered to be fundamental – portraiture, historical painting and religious painting – in a clear connection with literature and in close collaboration with a gallery that was used to working with playwrights and poets. Maria Aires Silveira