The Greatest Artist Brazil Has Ever Produced: Candido Portinari

Andréa Fernandes

In our quest to feature a different artist from a different country in each installment of "Feel Art Again" this month, today's post highlights "the greatest artist Brazil has ever produced," Candido Portinari (1903-1962). Reader Mateus Fonseca suggested Portinari, whose life—and death—was "fascinating."

1. In 1948, Candido Portinari painted panels for a church in Batatais. The paints he used were an "extremely toxic composition" that contained arsenic, which caused a hemorrhage that sent Portinari to the hospital. His regular paints, especially the yellow and white, also contained high quantities of lead. Doctors advised the artist to stop using the paints, but Portinari stubbornly continued to paint. He died from lead poisoning in 1962.

2. Brazil's government commissioned Portinari in 1952 to interpret the United Nations' objective "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" as two giant panels: a "war" one and a "peace" one. Portinari created the two 14 meters by 10 meters panels in four years, after making more than 150 studies in preparation. The murals were presented to the UN as gifts from Brazil on September 6, 1957, and installed in two prominent locations. "War" greets new arrivals to the UN building, while "Peace" is passed on the way out; the idea being that countries may enter the UN at odds, but leave reconciled.

3. Portinari, who once stated, "I decided to paint the Brazilian reality, naked and crude, as it is," is sometimes seen as a symbol of Brazil. According to his son, Portinari's work is "a letter to the Brazilian nation." He was so successful in capturing the spirit of his country that he and his work attracted prominent politicians from vastly different ends of the political spectrum. His funeral procession included ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, Communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes, and the anti-communist Governor of Guanabara, Carlos Lacerda. (Guanabara state is now Rio de Janiero.)

4. Over the years, Portinari's nearly 5,000 works of art became scattered throughout Brazil and the rest of the world, residing mostly in private collections. In 1979, his son founded the Portinari Project, embarking on a 26-year effort to identify, catalogue, and photograph Portinari's entire oeuvre. The paintings were all cross-referenced with 25,000 documents, including oral history interviews, letters, and newspaper clippings. An estimated $10 million has been invested in the project, which has employed state-of-the-art technology to not only scan, analyze, and catalogue the paintings, but also to bring Portinari's work to the citizens of Brazil, especially schoolchildren.

5. Apparently, Portinari was so short that he had "little steps" in his studio for him to stand on when painting large canvases. His studio—complete with little steps—can be viewed by the public in Casa Portinari, his family home that became a museum in 1970. In addition to his studio, the museum contains personal items, early murals, and other works.

A larger version of "Flora e Fauna Brasileiras" (1934) is available here. Fans should check out Projeto Portinari (in Portuguese, with an English option) and Museu Casa de Portinari (in Portuguese). "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday and Thursday and once on the weekend. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

It's not too late to submit suggestions of artists from around the world! We've been especially lacking in African and Australian art.