On the gaps of representation: black imagery in the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes collection

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

Potrait of the intrepid sailor Simão, collier of the steamboat Pernambuco, José Correia De Lima, 1853, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Two artworks, two portraits, what do they have in common?

Retrato de Silvino de Almeida Brito, Pedro Américo, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Having a black man portrayed, in a society built on slavery, meant breaking with a complex web that involved the explicit discrimination that neglected the black presence in many spaces, as well as the implicit and indirect forms of segregation. Both portray black men, an unusual occurance in colonial and imperial Brazil.

Potrait of the intrepid sailor Simão, collier of the steamboat Pernambuco (1853) by José Correia De LimaMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

One of the highlighted of the works here presented is that Sailor Simão...

Retrato de Silvino de Almeida Brito by Pedro AméricoMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

...and the literary man Silvino de Almeida Brito were portrayed individually, a practice that at the time was almost exclusive to member of the elite, usually white men.

The Portrait Genre

The portrait tradition begins in antiquity, it is a popular and ancient genre of representation. Works dating from the early years of the Christian Era are known. This type of painting, for a long time, was restricted to a small portion of society. The idea of ​​the portrait as something popular, as it is today, is recent in human history.
The term portrait derives from the Latin verb retrahere which means to copy. The idea of ​​the portrait as an image faithful to the appearance of the portrayed, however, was only present in certain historical moments, those with a naturalistic aesthetic tendency.
The portrait, as well as most painting genres, was born from religious painting and gradually gained independence, as is the case with other genres such as landscape, seascapes, still lives and others.

Engenho de mandioca (1892) by Modesto BrocosMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

The construction of black imagery in the Fine Arts

In the 19th century, black people were represented mainly by foreign painters, appearing in situations of work, punishment or possibly expressions of popular culture.

Such images of an exotic land, populated by black and indigenous populations, circulated in Europe producing a representation of these people, created mainly by the eyes of the other.

Potrait of the intrepid sailor Simão, collier of the steamboat Pernambuco, José Correia De Lima, 1853, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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In both paintings, the represented are not only portrayed, but also have their portraits titled by their name "The intrepid Marinheiro Simão" and "Portrait of Silvino de Almeida Brito".

Retrato de Silvino de Almeida Brito, Pedro Américo, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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O escravo, João Batista Ferri, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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In a different way, many paintings that represented black people were called "black" or "creole" creating the idea of ​​indistinction, a fact that lasted throughout the 20th century. It was as if a single black person could represent an entire ethnic group, that is, individuality, in the portraits, was attributed only to members of the elite.

Pretinha, Jorge Campos, 1942, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Creoula, Margarida Lopes De Almeida, 1940, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Cabeça de negro, Hostílio Dantas, 1943, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Potrait of the intrepid sailor Simão, collier of the steamboat Pernambuco (1853) by José Correia De LimaMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

The artwork “The intrepid Sailor Simão”

In 1853, the shipwreck of the Vapor Pernambucan, which left October 6 from Rio Grande do Sul towards Rio de Janeiro, took place. Simão Manuel Alves Juliano, a sailor and free man, of Cape Verdean origin, saved 13 people swimming. The fact was widely reported in the press at the time and the shipping company started a fundraising campaign to have his portrait taken. Simão was even received by the emperor Dom Pedro II, who also contributed with a donation to his portrait and awarded him a medal of distinction. The Academia de Bellas Artes, in turn, honored the sailor with a portrait made by José Correa de Lima, a disciple of Jean Batiste Debret. An artist, coming with the French artistic mission, Debret painted Africans and their descendants enslaved in the Brazilian Empire.

In this painting that honors the sailor Simão, he is highlighted in his majestic physical strength, holding the rope of the wrecked ship, remembering his heroic feat. The interest in this work lies precisely in it exceptionality, by assigning the portrait genre to a black man, still in the period of slavery, generally intended only for the white elite.

Retrato de Silvino de Almeida Brito by Pedro AméricoMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

The Portrait of Silvino de
Almeida Brito

An artistic genre present in the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, the portrait, produced in the 19th century, brings a break with the form of representation practiced in Brazil since the 17th century. Made under the influence of Portuguese style, the type of portrait produced during the colonial period lasted for a long time, even after the new parameters of representation adopted with the institutionalization of artistic education in Brazil originated from the French Artistic Mission. The Portrait of Silvino de Almeida Brito was painted by the artist Pedro Américo (Areia, PB 1843 - Florence, Italy 1905) who, being one of the main exponents of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, conceives it according to the French model of representation that according to Pierre Francastel would be the “Portrait in three quarters” designed to represent figures in a wealthy or prominent position in society.

We see here a middle-aged male figure, with black features, sitting in a red upholstered armchair. He is at the center of the composition, with only half of his body appearing. He wears elegant black outfits.

He presents himself seriously with his face marked by wrinkles and a calm look directed at the viewer. On the right, in the background...

a statuette that holds spiral text and a pen points to the portrait. In front of the statuette is a pair of feathers and on the back a book with a red cover.
The portrait reveals a black and socially prominent figure presented along with some attributes that indicate performance in the field of writing. The book's presence symbolizes schooling and scholarship. His outfit give sobriety to the composition as well as his social position.

Although the portrayed was able to pay one of the main painters of the 19th century to make his portrait and thus bequeath posterity to a testimony of black mobility in 19th century society, we have little information about him. This fact is still very common to several black personalities from the past centuries who remain obscured throughout history.
Associated with his name we have the names of Silvino José de Almeida and Silvino José de Almeida Brito. Both are identified as being the cousin of the first Brazilian publisher: Francisco de Paula Brito. The latter, the son of freed and literate slaves, would have bought Silvino his commercial spot located in Praça da Constituição, which sold newspapers, books, cigars and various products as well as making bookbinding services, creating the Typographia Fluminense de Brito e Cia.
Thus, we can situate the portrayed in a very common field of action for the enslaved black, freed or free in this period: the printers. Private printers demanded labor to meet the great demand for books and newspapers.

The MNBA collection also includes the portrait of Silvino de Almeida Brito's wife, Maria Custódia Guimarães de Almeida, also painted by Pedro Américo. Both are on display at the 19th century Brazilian Art Gallery.

Potrait of the intrepid sailor Simão, collier of the steamboat Pernambuco, José Correia De Lima, 1853, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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Both screens, on display at the 19th century Brazilian Art Gallery, show black men who somehow managed to be portrayed, artistically, in a genre more common only to the white elite, one for his heroic deed, in the face of the tragedy of a shipwreck...

Retrato de Silvino de Almeida Brito, Pedro Américo, From the collection of: Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
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and another for his social mobility when working in the field of typography and the press, a possible means of insertion and social ascension for free black men. The two works, by highlighting the individuality of black figures, bring important reflections to the present day, in which black populations, around the globe, seek to deconstruct racialized looks on their bodies, looks that are still present in images and speeches.

Credits: Story

Nas brechas das representações: imagens de negros no acervo do Museu Nacional de Belas Artes


Curadoria
Ana Teles
Cláudia Rocha
Reginaldo Tobias de Oliveira

Idealizada especialmente para o Google Art & Culture, 2020

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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