From the Coffee Plantation to the UN

The international career of one of the main names of Brazilian modernism

By Projeto Portinari

Portinari pintando o painel da ONU (1955)Projeto Portinari

Portinari’s bright artistic trajectory starts in a humble village lost amidst the immense coffee plantations of the state of São Paulo. Having given the country an emotional, grandiose portrait of the people, the life, and the Brazilian soul in over 5,000 piece, his work reached a high point with the monumental War and Peace panels, a gift from Brazil to the United Nations.

Portinari menino, 1913, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Portinari no Grupo Escolar (1915)Projeto Portinari

Portinari received only an elementary school education. He showed talent for art even as a child. He began painting when he was nine years old. And – from the coffee plantation to the United Nations – he became one of the greatest painters of his time.

Colegas de Portinari na ENBA (1924)Projeto Portinari

In 1920, he managed to enroll in the National School of Fine Arts (ENBA, in the Portuguese acronym). There, he found a contradictory, tense environment, marked by rigid academy norms. A free student, as art critic Quirino Campofiorito explains, “he was humbler, so they didn’t ask if he could read or write. They only did a drawing exam to determine whether he could draw.”

Portinari e sua obra (1926)Projeto Portinari

The year 1928 was decisive for Portinari’s career: the painter took part in the XXXV General Fine Arts Exhibit and won the prize of a study trip to Europe. It was the highest distinction to an artist in Brazil at the time.

Head of Cat, Candido Portinari, 1929, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Portinari left for Europe in 1929, specifically to Paris, temporarily settling in Montparnasse, an artist spot at the time; soon after, he moved to Hôtel du Dragon, near Boulevard Saint-German, and decided not to attend the Académie Julien, as was common among ENBA awardees.

Self-Portrait (1930) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

His time in Europe was important in his artistic journey. He barely painted, spending his days in museums, as he described to a friend:

“I started to work, but only in my bedroom, because I can’t find a workshop with my limited resources. … However, I’m not sad, because I’m not wasting my time: in the morning, I go to the Louvre to see the people up close, and at night I study. I have no intention of painting for now. I feel more and more archaic; faced with the exhibitions opening every day and the things in Louvre, those who aren’t fools and love Art more than success can only tend to this last one. I learn more from looking at a Titian, a Raphael than visiting every Salon d’Automne…”

LetterProjeto Portinari

Portinari felt like a man with no land and, in a letter sent to a colleague from ENBA, known today as “Letter of Palaninho”—a veritable declaration of intentions, which he would follow to his last breath—, we can find descriptions of the basis of his artistic project: to paint Brazilian life, soul, and people.

Palaninho (1930) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

"…Palaninho is from my land, from Brodowski. …I came here to get to know Palaninho, after having seen so many museums and castles and civilized people… There in Brazil I never used to think about Palaninho… From here I could see my own land more clearly – I could see Brodowski as it is. Here I have no urge to do anything… I’m going to paint Palaninho, I’m going to paint those people with those clothes and that coloring..."

The Evicted (1934) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

When he came back to Brazil, in 1931, the artist started to paint intensely again. The year 1934 was particularly important. Portinari painted Evicted, his first work with a social theme.

Mestizo Man (1934) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In that same year, his canvas Mestizo was acquired by the São Paulo State Pinacoteca, the first public institution to include a Portinari work in its collection.

Coffee (1935) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

From the 1930s and until the end of his life, Portinari would experience a period of intense international recognition. In 1935, he took part in an exhibit at the Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh, presenting his painting Coffee, with which he won the show’s Second Honorary Mention (this same award had been given to Kokoschka the previous year, and would be given to Salvador Dali a year later).

Obras novas de Candido Portinari Obras novas de Candido Portinari, 1939-04, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Exposição Portinari no MoMA (1940-10)Projeto Portinari

In 1940, he presented the individual show Portinari of Brazil, at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Candido Portinari at Museum of Modern Art Candido Portinari at Museum of Modern Art (1940-10-13)Projeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari no MoMA (1940-10) by Paul NonesProjeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari no MoMA (1940-10) by Paul NonesProjeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari no MoMA (1940-10) by Paul NonesProjeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari no MoMA (1940-10) by Paul NonesProjeto Portinari

Sra. Eleanor Roosevelt na Exposição Portinari (1944-10)Projeto Portinari

In 1941, the University of Chicago published the album Portinari, His Life and Art, the artist’s first biography. In the same year, Portinari presented an exhibit at the Howard University Art Gallery, in Washington (the first visitor at the vernissage was then-First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt).

Letter Letter (1945-01-25) by Alonzo J. AdenProjeto Portinari

Portinari na Biblioteca do Congresso (1941)Projeto Portinari

This intense work and its repercussions rendered him an invitation to paint the murals at the Library of Congress’s Hispanic Foundation, in Washington, inaugurated in 1942.

Portinari na Biblioteca do Congresso, Thomas D. McAvoy, 1942-01-05, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Los murales de Candido Portinari en la Fundación Hispánica de Washington, D.C. Los murales de Candido Portinari en la Fundación Hispánica de Washington, D.C., 1942-03, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Portinari no Partido Comunista (1946-04)Projeto Portinari

The social theme, the humanistic point of view in his work, and his commitment to Brazilian culture and politics led him, in 1945, to join the Brazilian Communist Party, along with a number of intellectuals and artists in the country.

Exposição Portinari na Galeria Charpentier (1946-10)Projeto Portinari

In 1946, Portinari was invited by Germain Bazin, then-curator of the Louvre, a friend and admirer of his, to do a show at Galerie Charpentier.

Portinari, a exposição na Galeria Charpentier Portinari, a exposição na Galeria Charpentier (1946-12)Projeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari na Galeria Charpentier (1946-10)Projeto Portinari

Portinari showed 84 works, among them the Dispossessed series, with paintings that exposed, in an extremely moving and remarkable way the inequalities, poverty, and social injustice plaguing the people of Northeastern Brazil, forced by drought to move toward the country’s southern regions.

Exposição Portinari na Galeria Charpentier, 1946-10, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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This exhibit had great repercussions in France, a country traumatized by World War II and the post-war context. The social and humanistic dimension of his works deeply moved the audience and was the object of heated discussions among artists and intellectuals of the time, such as Louis Aragon, René Huyghe, Germain Bazin, Jean Cassou, Michel Florisoone, Pierre Seghers, Roger Garaudy, among others.

Exposição Portinari na Galeria Charpentier (1946-10)Projeto Portinari

Poet Louis Aragon gave the exhibit’s opening speech:

“Here, Portinari isn’t considered foreign. Portinari is a great painter who speaks the same language we do, this language which dignifies the French, the Brazilian, the men; this language which nothing can silence, not even scholastic considerations, but which is rich in the teachings of modern masters of the great painting tradition.”

Chorinho (1942) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Jean Cassou, then-director of the Paris Modern Art Museum, wrote:

“The exhibit of his works at this moment in Paris shows the diversity, freedom, and power of his genius. Portinari is certainly the greatest painter in Latin America and one of the greatest contemporary artists…”

Burial in a Hammock (1944) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Germain Bazin stated:

“... Here is an artist who paints not only for the pleasure of painting, but to liberate the lyrical and dramatic impulse within. His work is no ‘workshop’ speculation made to be the object of interminable aesthetic debates by amateurs and critics. Like the masters of the past, Portinari, in his scaffolding, paints for others in frescos or tempera, big secular or religions sets in his country or in the United States. These sets are in no way ‘decorative,’ because in these works there are human beings associated not with gratuitous gestures, generative of arabesques and harmonies, but with human suffering...

Portinari, peintre du peuple brésilien Portinari, peintre du peuple brésilien, 1946-10-05, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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...Alone and on the other side of the world, this Brazilian painter spontaneously embraced this social attitude, a restlessness that has just started to arise in France. Every force of expression is confronted in his work, as if his heart has kept the world’s virginity. Beside canvases nuanced by sweetness, there are others of pungent expressionism, whose unbridled violence will perhaps surprise this Parisian environment, accustomed to respecting, even in the throes of boldness, the cannon defined by over 30 years of speculations as to what constitutes ‘good form’…”

A Legião de Honra para Portinari A Legião de Honra para Portinari (1946-10-23)Projeto Portinari

On this exhibit’s occasion, the French government gave Portinari the Medal of Knight of the Legion of Honour, to which René Huyghe declared:

“… I am glad to see that Paris put him where he belongs, among the great painters of our time, glad to see that the government recognized with this gesture the public opinion’s choice…”

Letter Letter (1947-04-25) by Antonio ChiavettiProjeto Portinari

In 1947, he left for Argentina, where he showed at Galeria Peuser, after several meetings with Argentinian artists and intellectuals. This trip coincided with the Portinari of Brazil exhibit at Pan American Union, in Washington. This would be his last show in the United States for the next 12 years. The absence from the American scene reflected the conflict between Portinari’s political views and the McCarthyism that reigned in America at the time. It was the middle of the Cold War.

Obra profunda y vital es la de Candido Portinari Obra profunda y vital es la de Candido Portinari (1947-07-18)Projeto Portinari

The First Mass in Brazil (1948) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

The communist repression in Brazil during President Eurico Gaspar Dutra’s government led Portinari to exile in Uruguay in late 1947 and stay there until the end of 1948. It was there that he painted his First Mass in Brazil.

Os comunistas têm delegados demais na Conferência Pró-Paz Os comunistas têm delegados demais na Conferência Pró-Paz (1949-03-23)Projeto Portinari

In 1949, the artist was invited to take part, in New York, in the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, but the United States embassy denied his visa due to his affiliation to the Communist Party. Unable to attend, Portinari sent the following message.

“The struggle for Peace is a decisive and urgent task. It is a campaign to clarify and warn that demands courage and determination. We must organize the fight for Peace and expand our anti-war front more and more, bringing to it all men of good will, without distinction of religion or race. Thus united, all the world’s peoples may take to the final victory, in action and in deed, the great cause of Peace, Culture, Progress and Brotherhood among peoples.”

Tiradentes (1948) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In 1950, he got the gold medal in the International Peace Prize, given by the World Peace Council, for the work Tiradentes. He also won the gold medal from the New York International Fine Arts Council (IFAC), being recognized as the year’s best artist.

Um brasileiro construirá a sede da ONU Um brasileiro construirá a sede da ONU (1947-03-05)Projeto Portinari

In 1952, Portinari was commissioned by the Brazilian government to paint the War and Peace panels, whose history we present in this exhibit.

LetterProjeto Portinari

Arab and Israelite (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In 1956, he was the first non-Jewish painter to be invited by the president of the State of Israel, Ben Zvi, to present an itinerary show, resulting in the book Israel, published in Italy.

Portinari em Israel, 1956-06, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Exposição Portinari em Israel, 1956-06, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Exposição Portinari em Israel, 1956-06, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Exposição Portinari em Israel, 1956-06, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Lake Tiberias (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Circle Dance (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Boy and Girls (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Portinari com o presidente Juscelino (1956-02)Projeto Portinari

Portinari delivers War and Peace. The panels, measuring 14m x 10m each, were made in oil on ship plywood over a period of nine months, with assistance from Enrico Bianco and Rosalina Leão. Before they go to the UN headquarters in Nova York, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek inaugurates an exhibition of the panels at the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro. For the first and only time Portinari saw War and Peace mounted. At the exhibition opening, President Kubitschek gives Portinari the Gold Medal he received from the International Fine Arts Council in 1955.

Portinari do Museu de Arte de São Paulo na exposição de Bruxelas Portinari do Museu de Arte de São Paulo na exposição de Bruxelas (1958-04-02)Projeto Portinari

The following year, Portinari exhibited in Paris again, at the Maison de la Pensée Française. In April 1958, the Brussels Universal Exposition hosted a retrospective called 50 Years of Modern Art. Portinari was the only Latin American artist invited to the show. His painting Burial in a Hammock, from the Dispossessed series, was chosen among the 100 masterpieces of the century.

Repercussão internacional da obra de Portinari Repercussão internacional da obra de Portinari (1958-04-20)Projeto Portinari

Terá o México sua Bienal de Arte Terá o México sua Bienal de Arte (1958-02-17)Projeto Portinari

In that same year, Portinari was the only foreign artist especially invited to the First Inter-American Biennial of Painting and Printmaking at the Mexican Museum of Visual Arts. The VIP room was reserved to his works, and he was part of the jury.

Art critic Enrique Fernandez G. dedicated a voluminous article to Portinari:

“... At this time, in 1958, this man is in Mexico, at the National Museum of Visual Arts, where he occupies the honor room that is offered to him by a country of painters. ... From tenderness to fury, it is all Portinari. …”

Painéis de Portinari na ONU (1957-09-06)Projeto Portinari

In 1957, the War and Peace panels are given to the UN in an official ceremony. Portinari is not invited to attend the ceremony due to his involvement with the Communist Party and is represented by Ambassador Cyro de Freitas-Valle.

"... the most important monumental work of art donated to the UN.", declares Dag Hammarskjold, UN secretary general at that time, 1957. Nobel Peace Prize

Graham Greene e Portinari Graham Greene e Portinari (1960-06-11)Projeto Portinari

In 1959, Portinari was invited by Gallimard publishers to illustrate works by André Maurois (novels), Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory) and Ferreira de Castro (Jungle).

Exposição Portinari na Itália (1963-04)Projeto Portinari

In 1963, one year after his death, the first posthumous Portinari exhibit was organized at the Palazzo Reale, in Milan, by his friend Eugenio Luraghi, poet, art critic and world CEO of Alfa Romeo and Pirelli at the time. He wrote:

“Upon meeting this small man of very modest appearance, if one looks in his blue eyes and hears him speak, as simply as a child, of the children he loves above all, one would hardly believe to be facing the most terrible and tragic artist of our time…”

Exposição Portinari na Itália (1963-04)Projeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari na Itália (1963-04)Projeto Portinari

In Palazzo Reale a Milano mostra del pittore brasiliano Portinari In Palazzo Reale a Milano mostra del pittore brasiliano Portinari (1963-04)Projeto Portinari

Credits: Story

Executive Directors: João Candido Portinari
Curatorship and Research: Maria Duarte
Texts: Projeto Portinari
Copyright Projeto Portinari

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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Portinari: Painter of the People
The life and art of one of Brazil's most celebrated artists
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