From the time of the dedication of the Hispanic Room, it was hoped that
the two vestibules could be decorated by some outstanding muralist from Latin
America. Since the Foundation already possessed a mural of the Columbus coat
of arms symbolizing the Spanish contribution to American history, it was
felt that it would be appropriate to entrust the decor of these vestibules
to a Brazilian so that the Portuguese-speaking people of America also might
Cândido Portinari seemed just the person for the task. Accordingly,
in November 1940, Librarian of Congress Archibald
MacLeish invited the painter to consider the preparation of sketches
for the murals. Portinari, who had just returned to Brazil from his exhibition
in New York, knew the space that had been allotted for the project and was
enthusiastic. The Brazilian Government, welcoming the invitation, provided
funds for his return to Washington in August 1941 to prepare sketches.
In a series of discussions with Mr. MacLeish, Portinari planned the themes
of the four large paintings and shortly afterwards presented gouache sketches
that were approved by the Librarian and the Architect of the Capitol, David
Lynn. To enable Portinari to execute the murals, a fund equal to that already
appropriated by the Brazilian Government was obtained from the Office of
the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.
Cândido Portinari began to paint on the walls of the Hispanic Division
late in October, assisted by his brother Luiz. Two months later the work
was completed, and on January 12, 1942 it was inaugurated in a ceremony conducted
by the Brazilian ambassador, Senhor Carlos Martins Pereira e Sousa, Nelson
Rockefeller, Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and Lewis
Hanke, the Hispanic Foundation director.
In designing the murals, Portinari himself imposed the restriction that
the figures and the objects be so represented as to apply not to one age
alone but to the whole succession of periods since the coming of the Spaniards
and Portuguese to America. On the first wall he decided to depict the primary
event -- the discovery of the land -- but without specifically representing
either the Portuguese under Cabral who came to Brazil or the Spaniards under
Columbus. Next he showed the great American theme of pioneering, of the conquest
of forests and the domination of the land, the act of penetration which had
gradually taken place all over Hispanic America, from Patagonia to the Rio
Grande. For the symbol of this theme he chose the actual entry of pioneers
into the primeval forest. In the third mural he represented cultural beginnings
through the basic teaching of the Indians by members of the religious orders.
Here again his theme was international. It might have been recorded in Mexico,
Paraguay, or Brazil. For his final mural he reserved the theme of work. Specifically
he chose mining -- the most spectacular aspect of the economy of Mexico,
Brazil, and other sections of South and Central America in the colonial period.
In the figures of his murals, Portinari represented the three races of the
Americas: the Indian, the black, and the white.
In the matter of technique he faced a choice of one of several processes.
The murals could be painted on canvas set in the walls or directly on the
walls, either on wet plaster in the true fresco technique or on dry plaster
in tempera. Portinari was thoroughly familiar with all three processes, but
elected to use the third because it promised the most successful blending
of monumentality with luminous coloring, because it seemed the most effective
for the relatively small space available, and because it would permit him
a greater freedom of experimentation while working with a subject and in
an atmosphere hitherto unfamiliar to him.
Portinari's first painting, Discovery of the Land,
is dominated not by captains or the admirals or the priests of the conquest
but by the common sailors who manned the fleet. This mural has the most baroque
composition of the series. It is divided vertically by the twisting ropes
of the ship's rigging and ladders. The sweeping diagonals of the gunwales
and the swirling masses of water join with the powerful exultant figures
of the men to heighten the movement and excitement of the scene. The wind
of conquest and of expectation seems to blow through the picture and the
effect is heightened by the Tiepolo-like blues and greys and whites, the
true tonalities of the sea, that predominate.
second painting, Entry into the Forest,
is reminiscent of frescoes in the Brazilian Ministry of Education. The idea
of representing tropical animals, birds, and insects in a jungle setting
derives from the decorations of the dining room Portinari prepared for the
Rio de Janeiro residence of Senhor José Nabuco. In both the ink and
the gouache sketches for the mural of the Hispanic Room, the composition
is square, and the scene is dominated by two large figures at the right.
On the wall, however, the picture assumed larger proportions. This mural
contrasts with the first in that the composition is more static and the figures
more solidly realized. Yet there is the same insistence upon essential things
in the meticulous rendering of the hands and arms of the explorers and the
almost unfinished aspect of the figure of the drinking man beside the stream.
two murals in the larger room present a similar stylistic contrast. The Teaching
of the Indians, built around a classic triangular arrangement of
figures, follows the sober, contained tradition of Portinari's early work.
As with the Discovery mural, the artist originally planned a different
composition. An ink sketch on file at the Library of Congress shows a seated
priest before a mass of striding Indians who bear a curious resemblance to
those of the first of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco's frescoes
in the Dartmouth College Library. This the painter found "too regimented."
In the finished mural the theme is international, but the symbols are peculiarly
Brazilian. The scene is a 16th-century coastal settlement, a village where
such Jesuit fathers as Anchieta and Nóbrega labored in peaceful penetration
to instruct the Tupi Indians and save their souls. The painter has carefully
grouped his figures to show the trust and affection of these Indians for
their devoted preceptos. The intimate spirit of the work is fostered by the
warm encircling background tones of the rich red earth, colors that go back
to the terra roxa of São Paulo, by the presence of the spotted
cow mentioned in one of Anchieta's letters, and by scattered folk objects
-- a coiled rope, a shining metal trunk, and a hoary calabash, elements familiar
as signatures in Portinari's paintings.
last mural represents the Discovery of Gold.
In it Portinari broke both with the Ministry frescoes and the World's Fair
decorations. He abandoned the first idea of many boats floating on a winding
river to concentrate on a single boat with a single group of figures. As
in the first Hispanic Room mural, he moved from a distant general view to
a specific close-up incident. In both paintings there is violent excitement;
both represent the tenseness of the moment of discovery; both are exultant.
But here the painter introduces a more frenzied pattern through the symbol
of the worker's hand, raised, gesticulating, grasping, pressing. Impressionistic
in color in the sudden brilliant strokes of unrelated colors on the skiff,
in the hair of the miners, in the glint of gold and the tiny gleaming fish,
this painting marks the farthest evolution of the painter's mural style toward
the dissolution of form and color and derives from a series of experimental
oils centering around the theme of a shipwreck, which Portinari made in the
summer of 1941.