The son of Italian immigrants from the Veneto region, Portinari was born in 1903 in a coffee producing farm in the small town of Brodowski, upstate São Paulo. From an early age he manifested interest and aptitude in drawing and painting, but his family’s poverty forced him to suspend his primary education at age nine. This proved to be a temporary setback, and it was during those years of manual labour in the region where he was born that Portinari went through the experiences that were to shape him an artist and as a politician.
At the time, Brazilian politics were dominated by an agrarian oligarchy based in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, in what was known as política do café com leite, or ‘coffee with milk politics’, a sobriquet that referred to the respective major products of each of those two states. The coffee and milk barons effectively controlled political power in the country with the help of their fortunes, inherited from the times of colonialism and slavery, and sustained by the cheap labour of Italian immigrants.
The inequality between that entrenched elite and the masses working for them was witnessed firsthand by the young Portinari, becoming the major theme of his later works and cementing his relevance for a country where poverty and disenfranchisement are very serious issues to this day.
In 1919, at age 15, Portinari decided to develop his skills professionally and applied to the National School of Art in Rio, where he was accepted and began his formal training in painting and composition. At this time he became one of the first Brazilian artists to incorporate Modernist elements in his work, which was to become a feature of is work for the rest of his career. In 1928 he won a prize at the National Salon of Brazil which entailed funding for three years in Europe, based in Paris.
It was during that time that Portinari increased his knowledge of European art, traveling extensively in Europe and having the opportunity to visit museums and meet other artists working in the various trends of Modernism, being particularly drawn to Cubism and Surrealism. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Maria Martinelli, a young Uruguayan who was to be his lifelong companion.
Fruitful as that period was, one of the most important outcomes for Portinari was the deepened love for his homeland fostered by geographical distance and cultural differences. In 1930 he returned to Brazil, fully committed to dedicating his art to his country’s social and political history. During that period he moved from painting on canvas to murals, the medium that was to make him famous internationally.
The 1934 painting Café already presents moralistic characteristics, not only considering its scope and sheer size but the narrative aspect of the simultaneous scenes of work in a coffee plantation that it depicts. It won an honorable mention at a Carnegie Institute exhibition in Pittsburg, PA, a recognition that opened wide and more ambitious prospects to Portinari at home. In the years that followed he was commissioned by the Brazilian government to produce large-scale works for public buildings and constructions, such as the Monumento Via Dutra, celebrating the construction of the Rio-São Paulo motorway, or the mosaic panels for the ministry of education building in Rio, currently the Palácio da Cultura.
In the years that followed Portinari’s work gained more traction in the United States, first in the Brazilian pavilion of the 1939 World Fair in New York, which was visited by Alfred H. Barr Jr, at the time director of the Museum of Modern Art. Impressed by Portinari’s paintings, Barr invited him to showcase his larger work in a solo exhibition at the MoMA, a first time for a Brazilian artist. This in turn led to a commission by the Library of Congress to create the murals that to this day decorate its magnificent Hispanic Reading Room. During his time in The United States Portinari also had the opportunity to see Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily loaned to the MoMa, which was to shape his output in the last decades of his life.
In the 1940s Portinari turned to politics, becoming a full member of the Brazilian Communist Party and running for congress and senate twice. He was defeated narrowly on both occasions, although allegations of rigging ensuied. In 1947 he left for exile in Uruguay where he was to stay until 1951, benefitting from thaw in government persecution and staying in Brazil for the rest of his life.
It was in 1952 that he started his best known work, the grandiose double mural Guerra e Paz, War and Peace, commissioned by the Brazilian government as a gift to the United Nations, to be displayed in the (at time new) headquarters in New York. These panels are Portinari’s masterpiece and one of the most recognizable pieces of Brazilian art. Measuring individually an imposing 46 by 32 feet, Portinari sought to encapsulate in this work the hopes and fears that the newly founded organization represented to a world reeling from the horrors of the Second World War. The dark-blue, purple and red palette of the War tableau contrasts starkly with the lighter yellow tones of its companion Peace, offering a sobering yet encouraging reminder of what Portinari saw as the mission of the UN. Sadly, his political engagement with the Communist Party saw him banned from the unveiling ceremony in New York, in 1957.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the project for the construction of Brasília was getting off the ground, and from 1956 onwards Portinari collaborated more with another very famous Brazilian, architect Óscar Niemeyer, responsible for designing the buildings of the country’s new capital. During the whole of the 1950s Portinari tragically started showing symptoms of lead poisoning, due to his contact with paint. His dedication to his work to the expense of his health made him even more of a legend among the people of Brazil, a martyr to art and the cause of equality.