The murals at the Library of Congress

Portinari was invited to paint the murals at the library in Washington, D.C.

Mining of Gold (1941) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Letter Letter (1940-11-04) by Archibald MacLeishProjeto Portinari

In 1940, Cândido Portinari got a letter from the director of the Library of Congress, poet Archibald MacLeish, saying:

“For a long time, we have wished to showcase, in the vestibule of our Hispanic room, a mural painting by some great Latin-American artist. Our intention is to further highlight the goals of the Hispanic Foundation and its profound interest in modern American art. Now, I have hopes of getting funding for the frescoes. I write to inform you that I am considering you for this important, difficult task.”

Portinari e família (1941)Projeto Portinari

In June 1941, Portinari went to Washington to start the work at the Library of Congress.

LetterProjeto Portinari

In September 17th, MacLeish wrote to President Vargas:

“… I wish to thank Your Honor for the very kind attention dispensed to our invitation for Mr. Portinari to consider preparing these works, and for Your Honor’s splendid action of sending the very distinguished painter to Washington to execute the preliminary drawings...

Portinari na Biblioteca do Congresso (1941)Projeto Portinari

...I am sure the accomplishment of these important projects in the walls of our Hispanic Foundation, which is rapidly becoming a prominent center, in this country, for the study of Latin-American country, will bear the largest, most beneficial fruits in the current work of cultural approximation among the people of two great republics, the United States of Brazil and the United States of North America.”

Mining of Gold, Candido Portinari, 1941-09-29, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Mining of Gold, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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“Portinari did the first sketches for the panels he was to execute in watercolor, and submitted them to the poet for approval by the official organisms. The Architect of the Capitol expressed his wholehearted approval for the studies presented. ‘He found them admirable,’ MacLeishe said.”

Antonio Bento

Gold Mining, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Prospectors, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Gold Mine, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Mining, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Catechesis, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Catechesis, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Catechesis I, Candido Portinari, 1941, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Portinari na Biblioteca do Congresso (1941)Projeto Portinari

Portinari na Biblioteca do Congresso (1942-01-05) by Thomas D. McAvoyProjeto Portinari

In October, Portinari wrote to the Brazilian ministry of Education Eduardo Capanema about the work’s progress:

“… I am pleased to inform you that the studies were approved by MacLeish and the Architect of the Capitol. … Tomorrow, the studies will be photographed and I will send you a copy as soon as I have it. The work has 1,000 square feet. I will execute the tempera over the wall. …

...I am committed to this with the same enthusiasm dedicated to your Ministry, and I hope to do a fruitful work of propaganda for Brazil, for though the subjects are common to every Latin-American country, it is clear I will portray Brazil.”

Mining of Gold (1941) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

“Out of his country, out of his native familiar environment, he felt less rooted, more free to commit himself, with no obstacles of any order, to the demon of his virtuosity, of his hidden impulses, of his inspiration. Never—and this we can tell at first sight—at any other time with his mural accomplishments, has he felt more free, more unencumbered, more willing to perform the most dangerous gymnastic techniques, and the most violent deformations. These compositions were executed with a deep feeling of freedom.”

Mário Pedrosa

Catechesis (1941) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December and the following participation of the United States in the war, Portinari decided to leave the country, but came upon serious difficulties. He wrote to Mario de Andrade:

“I have finished the murals at the Library of Congress—I wish you could see them, I believe this is my best work. It seems to me that the one who really got it was MacLeish—the others at the Library are lovely, but somewhat academic...

...Photographs don’t really show it well, for size and colors count for a great deal. The cool people here are really enjoying it, and I believe it will have a repercussion, even during the war.”

Portinari na América Portinari na América (1942-02-07)Projeto Portinari

“The subjects would be: The Discovery, the Entry, the Catechism, and the Prospection. Thus, they represented the discovery of the American continent by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the possession of the land, the Jesuit catechism, and, finally, the search for gold.”

Antonio Bento

Portinari na America do Norte Portinari na America do Norte (1942)Projeto Portinari

The frescoes were inaugurated in 1942. Important critics talked about the opening, such as Chandler de Brossard:

“Portinari’s work for the Hispanic Foundation at the Library shows he is not only a more than competent draftsman and an intelligent colorist with great ease in composing, but also a man gifted with a deeply moving and intensely direct comprehension of a substantial part of the society—the common man. His symbols exude the vibration of life.”

Discovery of the Land (1941) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Speeches made in the occasion were broadcast to Brazil in short waves. One was Robert C. Smith’s, assistant director to the Hispanic Foundation of the Library of Congress:

“Portinari’s problem in the paintings for the Hispanic Foundation was finding symbols to interpret not only his country’s ancient history, but which could also be applied to other lands in South and Central America. First, he chose the discovery of the land, the arrival of ships bringing people from Spain and Portugal to the new world. Characteristically, his painting is dominated not by captains, admirals or the priests of the Conquest, but by the common sailors in the fleet...

...In this work, once again, there is violent excitement. The symbol of the worker’s hand is used in the most varied patterns: lifted, raised, gesticulating, holding. The style is impressionist … in form, since the miners’ features are not very well-defined. Noses are triangles made with rapid brushstrokes, fingers are unfinished like staccato notes. Impressionist in colors, in the bright brush work, in the boat’s paints, in the black’s hairs, in the shine of the gold, and in the reflection of the fish. This painting marks a broad revolution in the painter’s mural style by dissolving shape, color, and is more clearly related to his recent oil paintings. … As Mr. Archibald MacLeish declared in a letter to president Getulio Vargas, … [these panels by Portinari] represent a highly original and important contribution to the American arts.”

No MAM a pintura monumental de PortinariProjeto Portinari

Taming the Forest (1941) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Portinari did not come to the inauguration, as he would later explain to a reporter: “My mission was accomplished when I put the finishing touches on my work. The rest was for the good neighbor…”

Portinari left Washington for Miami, from where he would then go to Brazil, passing first through New York to portray Nelson Rockefeller’s mother. It was probably at that time that he saw Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA, which would impact him greatly.

The Last Bulwark (1942) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

"Picasso strikes me.”

In May 1946, Portuguese magazine Vértice published an interview by Portinari to Mário Dionísio, with the following dialogue:

“You don’t accept that you have different influences and that they, in turn, show up in your work? …”
“Of course I do! No one can run away from influences. They are natural, really indispensable.”
“Then, what influences do you accept?”
“Many,” Portinari answered with his characteristic simplicity and honesty, with an air that I have only heard from him when (rarely) talking about his work like someone speaking about the most natural, least important thing in the world.
“I have received many influences and can’t even precisely indicate them all. The whole Italian school, Goya… I have a ‘Goya-ish’ phase. Look at this Laundryman, this Saint John’s Festival.”
And, with a voice trespassed with enthusiasm, he suddenly declared:
“And Picasso!”
I had thought about this since I saw the reproduction of The Last Bastion, which I can’t help but look at as a more humane Guernica, if that is possible, closer to the common man, tighter with its origins. More ours—I told him, later.
“Picasso, in fact, is behind some of these admirable things. The Last Bastion is the most evident case, right?”
“Yes, Picasso strikes me.”
His eyes, blue and slightly oblique, were now again very small, tight.
“I had to make The Last Bastion. If I hadn’t, it would have been very bad. I had to make it and wait for what would happen. I would either drown or be able to leap.”
And, randomly choosing one of the Dispossessed reproductions, he added:
“This is what happened, I leaped. …”

Migrants (1944) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

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