Monday, May 16, 2011


Some three-quarters of a century ago, my mother-in-law accompanied a friend on a visit to a coffee plantation in the interior of São Paulo. While there, they visited a family she’d never met before, and has never seen since, but has always had good cause to remember. Because their home was filled with paintings by a young nephew named Candido Portinari.

Portinari, the son of immigrant laborers from Veneto, Italy had been born on that very plantation.

He went on to become one of the two leading Brazilian artists of his generation (the other being Di Cavalcanti, five years his senior).

Classified as a neo-realist, the range and scope of Portinari’s work is remarkable.

It includes images of childhood…

…paintings depicting labor…

…refugees fleeing the hardships of Brazil's rural north-east...

…treatments of key events in Brazilian history…

…portraits of members of his family…

…and leading Brazilian intellectuals…

…even book illustrations…

…and decorative tiles. 

At the United Nations Building in New York, you can also admire his enormous panels Guerra e Paz (War and Peace).

Not, however, as of this writing, because they happen to be in Brazil for restoration.

Like some other countries proud of their painters (France and the Netherlands come  immediately to mind) the government once saw fit to honor him by putting his image on the currency.

And these are the images of him, that Brazilians will most readily recognize.

Of Portinari, it can truly be said he gave his life to his art.
He died in Rio de Janeiro, in 1962, of lead poisoning contracted from his paints.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Talk about range. Those paintings are powerful achievements in a half-dozen different styles.

    The word "awesome" gets casually thrown around in the current vernacular, but, damn, for any of us who spend a lifetime struggling to nail one reasonably functional mode of expression, Portinari is an actually awesome figure.

    Great post.


  2. The children's game, Which of these things are not like the others?", applies to the painting of the refugees. There is beauty and color in the human subjects in the other paintings but the refugees are in black and white, a group of the walking dead, standing on soil that is dead.

    The old man is the stunning representation of their desperation. The birds in the background feast on carrion and the juxtaposition of a bird and the staff the old man is carrying, turn him into the grim reaper. He knows that there is no future, only death.

    This is the sort of painting that should be in a room without other art to distract from its impact. It is a statement about the conditions in the northeast of Brazil but it is represents every other country that practices genocide by neglect. This painting imprints itself on the retina; if I close my eyes it is still there.


  3. What an amazing talent. And how sad about his death. I like learning about Brazil through your books and posts. Thank you.