Candido Portinari (1903 – 1962) is considered to be one of Brazil’s most important painters and a key figure in Brazilian modernism. Once declaring to “paint the Brazilian reality, naked and crude as it is,'' the artist’s work captures the country’s spirit and its people. Discover more about the artist below with these ten need-to-know facts.
1. Portinari grew up on a coffee plantation
The artist was born to Giovan Battista Portinari and Domenica Torquato, Italian immigrants from Veneto, Italy who came to work in São Paulo, Brazil. Portinari grew up near Brodowski on the coffee plantation his parents worked at, and the dark soil and blue skies would be the inspiration for many of his future works.
2. One of Portinari's first jobs was painting portraits from photographs
At 15 years old, Portinari’s parents paid for his second-class ticket to Rio de Janeiro so he could study art. He had to find a way to make money easily, and so during this time, Portinari was paid to paint portraits from photographs. The artist enlarged photographs to create paintings that resembled the original so closely the artist was able to fund himself while attending the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.
3. Portinari painted more than 5,000 artworks
Over his lifetime, Portinari was a prolific painter, amassing more than 5,000 artworks. These range from small sketches to large scale murals, although only a small number of his paintings actually went on public display when he was alive.
4. Portinari’s trips to Europe were key to his career - and his love life
In 1928, age 25, Portinari won a gold medal from the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes and the prize included a trip to Paris. After returning to Brazil in 1930, Portinari left to travel around Europe again, this time to Spain and Italy. These visits were incredibly important, not only was he able to study European artworks, he also met his future wife, Maria Martinelli.
Portinari was incredibly inspired on his return to Brazil. He came back intent on conveying the true Brazilian lifestyle and colors, capturing the pain and struggles of his people through his art.
5. His face featured on a bank note
In 1986, due to inflation, banknotes of the Brazillian cruzado were issued in denominations of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 cruzados. Cruzado notes featured prominent people and, in 1988, Portinari became the face of the 5,000 cruzado banknote. The note featured the face of the artist with his artwork Tiradentes in the background. The other side of the note depicted Portinari drawing Baianas.
6. Portinari’s church fresco was condemned by an archbishop
Portinari became famous for his murals and one notable creation was his collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most important modernist architect. The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi designed by Niemeyer was part of an urban project in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The architect asked Portinari to paint a mural behind the altar.
On completion in 1943, archbishop Cabral opposed the structure on aesthetic grounds, declaring: “Niemeyer’s hangar [looks] more like the devil’s bomb shelter [...] with an emaciated Christ glaring from a huge fresco by painter Candido Portinari”. He claimed the church was “unfit for religious purposes” and it remained unconsecrated for 16 years. In 1959, auxiliary archbishop João Rezende Costa felt the church had "great artistic significance and a spiritual atmosphere" and it was finally consecrated.
7. His 1940 one-man show at MoMA listed his baby as the collector
Billed as “Brazil's most famous modern artist”, Portinari was given his own exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1940. In the press release about the one-man show, it stated the collector was João Candido Portinari, the artist's one-year-old son (who attended the opening night with his mother and father).
Several months before his son's birth, Portinari began setting aside some of his best paintings for the baby’s art collection. “He has continued this practice and will not sell any of these paintings,” says the press release. “A number of the oils and more than two dozen of the drawings to be shown in the exhibition have been lent by the baby.”
8. Projeto Portinari has digitized the artist’s works
In 1979, taking the responsibility as collector seriously, the artist’s son João Portinari, founded Projeto Portinari. Over nearly three-decades, the initiative has identified, catalogued and photographed Portinari’s entire collection of artworks. The artist’s 5,000 paintings were all cross-referenced with 25,000 documents, including interviews, letters and newspaper clippings and has also grown to encompass state-of-the-art technology that scans and analyzes the paintings.
9. The artist was commissioned by the UN
In 1956, the United Nations asked its affiliated countries to donate a work of art to the UN’s new headquarters. Brazil enlisted the talents of Portinari and the artist took four years to complete the mural named War and Peace. The two-part piece illustrates war, agony, fear and pain to demonstrate how people suffered during the war. Dag Hammarskjöld, the then UN Secretary-General, called the work "the most important monumental work of art donated to the UN".
When delegates enter the New York headquarters, they are faced with the War panel, yet when they exit the building they see Peace, which was a symbolic wish of the painter though he never actually got to see them hung in the building.
10. Portinari suffered for his art
The paints Portinari used throughout his career ultimately had a fatal impact on his health. His first brush with death came from a commission for panels in a church in Batatais in 1948. The paints were a “toxic composition” that contained arsenic and caused a hemorrhage that hospitalized Portinari.
Unfazed by the dangers, Portinari’s day-to-day paints were equally as hazardous, containing high quantities of lead. Despite doctors advising the artist to stop, he continued to paint with them until his death in 1962, which was caused by lead poisoning.