Cândido Torquato Portinari was born in 1903, on a coffee plantation in the interior of São Paulo state that now houses a museum in his honor. Of humble background, he grew up amidst coffee plants and small settlements. He only attended elementary school, but even as a child he seemed destined for a career in the arts. He started drawing at the age of 6 and when he was 9 he assisted Italian painters with the restoration of a church.
In 1918, at the age of 15, he went to Rio de Janeiro looking for a further education in painting and enrolled in the National School of Fine Arts. In 1928, he won a prize to travel abroad, traveling to Europe and living in Paris until 1930. He dedicated himself to studying and researching art. He discovered modern painting and met the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life, Maria Martinelli.
Upon his return to Brazil, Portinari focused primarily on painting. In his works he portrayed the Brazilian people and searched his memories for inspiration of the land, the villages and coffee harvest. He abandoned the rules of the Academy of Fine Arts and followed his own style.
In 1935 he painted Café and received international recognition for his work. A year later, in 1936 he was appointed professor at the Institute of Art at the University of the Federal District and painted his first mural.
He created several large art works for important structures, such as the Monumento Rodoviário, on the road between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and the Ministry of Education and Health (aka the Pálacio de Capanema). These works represent an important moment in the evolution of Portinari’s art, affirming his focus on social issues that would guide the rest of his work.
His art denounced the social inequalities in Brazil. His internationally acclaimed work depicted human bodies with enormous feet, symbolizing their connection to the earth. He received a series of official commissions and revived the tradition of grand historic art works, with a modernist style.
In 1944, he was commissioned by Oscar Niemeyer to create a mural for the church in Pampulha, Minas Gerais, portraying an expressionist drawing of Saint Francis and the Via Sacra. In 1948, Portinari went into exile in Uruguay for political reasons. There he painted the panel A Primeira Missa no Brasil (The First Mass in Brazil) and, a year later, he painted a panel of Tiradentes that was awarded a gold medal by the jury of the International Peace Prize, in Warsaw.
In 1952, he completed another historically important panel, A Chegada da Família Real Portuguesa à Bahia (The arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Bahia), and he began drafting designs for the panels entitled Guerra e Paz (War and Peace), a gift from the Brazilian government to the new United Nations headquarters in New York. Completed in 1956, the panels, measuring 14 x 10 meters each, are the largest he ever painted and can still be seen at the UN headquarters in New York.
The artist also left a large number of expressionist works that portray the reality of Brazil’s rural population, particularly that of poor migrants from the northeast. Over the course of his career he painted almost 5.000 works, ranging from small sketches to enormous murals.
Portinari never stopped working. He became politically engaged and also tried to pay tribute to his land and his people. He died in 1962, poisoned by the paint he used.
He saw painting as an important vehicle to promote ideas and he deplored that by the end of his career, painting itself had to be promoted to survive.
O Lavrador de Café – 1939
One of Portinari’s most important works, O Lavrador de Café (the coffee worker) was part of a collection of 56 paintings he created around the coffee theme. The oil painting measures 100 x 80 centimeters and portrays a black worker on a coffee plantation at the beginning of the 20th century. It depicts the social reality of a man deformed by the burden of his work. His enormous feet seem to be attached to the earth, as if he were part of it.
The painting was stolen in 2007, together with a work by Picasso. It was recovered 19 days later by the Civil Police of the State of São Paulo. It is currently on display at the Museu de Arte in São Paulo.