His skin, his hair, and his lack of clothes clue us into his ethnic identity and social status.
This character’s eyes are in line with the horizon, which, by definition, is usually where our gaze falls. So, he faces us directly; his eyes and his face convey pride without being arrogant; we can also perceive his dignity, tranquility, strength, and lack of tension.
The human figure overlaps in great highlight to the rural landscape, occupying the central space, blocking our view of the plantations and his probable work site, almost giving the environment the aspect of a setting.
Another resource used to give the sensation of deepness is the repetition of shapes that get smaller the further they are, like the diminishing posts that make up the fence.
The landscape shadows are less contrasted, emphasizing the impression of being more distant, or bathed in sunlight in a different angle from the character.
The artist’s brushwork is strong and visible both in the character and in the various elements represented in the painting, though we can see a change in the direction and movement of the hand from which they originated.
The predominance of the character’s skin color takes on symbolic value in Brazil’s historical context, referencing the painting’s title.
In the composition, besides a strong presence of an imaginary line in the central vertical axis, crossing the characters body, we can see the canvas divided in six horizontal stripes, prolonged in the landscape from references in the character. They are divided on the following heights: eyes, mouth, shoulder, hands, and elbows. Notice how the naked torso can be contained in an imaginary square within the rectangle of the canvas.
The upper space is divided in three imaginary rectangles, occupied by the head and the two landscape cutouts.
It is important to remember that one of Modernism’s main goals in the 1920s (prior to this painting) was to solve the dilemmas from previous centuries about the nature of Brazilian identity. One of the results of the country’s social formation, since colonial times, was an ethnic blend of Indians, blacks, and whites of European descent, constituting a difficult type of identity definition. Often, the only thing people had in common was agrarian work, Brazil’s economic basis.
At the end of the 19th century, the prejudice against miscegenation was so great that it led to comments such as this: “The count of Gobineau, French ambassador to the court of Dom Pedro II, would say that Brazil, being composed mainly of mestizos, was doomed to disappear as a people.” The publishing, in the 1930s, of The Masters and The Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre, is an answer to this biased view.
According to Marcelo Paixão, in Freyre, “The glorification of the mestizo was, at the same time, an ideological solution to the stalemates of development—which stopped being understood within a racial bias—and an instrument to constitute a national identity. …
… According to Freyre’s contributions, thus, the cultural heritage of people who formed Brazilian nationality, despite their many faults, would create our own common identity trace. This way, the long Vargas government can be defined both by the Consolidation of Labor Laws and the federal intervention in economy or by the elevation of the racial democracy myth to an ideological state apparatus.”
The representation of the Mestizo, by Portinari, can thus be seen as an attempt to positively personify a certain notion of the Brazilian identity.
Mestiço by CandIdo PortinariPinacoteca de São Paulo