Nine Masterpieces to Find in the São Paulo Museum of Art

MASP | © raphaelstrada / Flickr
Euan Marshall

The São Paulo Museum of Art, or MASP as it is commonly known, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brazil’s largest city. Housed in a striking modernist building designed by legendary Italo-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, the museum is centrally located on Paulista Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. As well as hosting a number of temporary exhibitions from some of history’s most famous artists, MASP’s permanent collection is also something to behold, with some truly inspiring pieces. Here are nine of the best.

The Resurrection of Christ, Raphael

One of the earliest known paintings (dated between 1499 and 1502) by High Renaissance master Raphael, The Resurrection of Christ, sometimes referred to as The Kinnaird Resurrection, is also the only Raphael piece to be housed in the Southern Hemisphere. It was donated to MASP in 1958, before the current museum was even built.

The painting shows Raphael’s commitment to creating symmetry and harmony in his work, rigorously dividing the vertical and horizontal axes and having Christ’s feet as the center point of the painting, ‘framed’ by the four guards, who are all gesturing in different directions.

The Resurrection of Christ, Raphael

The Annunciation, El Greco

Part of a series of similar paintings housed all around the world, The Annunciation displayed in MASP is one of the later works of Mannerist painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, best known by his nickname El Greco. Painted while the artist was living in Toledo, the former capital of Spain, The Annunciation is a dramatic and fantastic scene, with Mary and the angel Gabriel appearing as almost ethereal beings, the striking white flash from on high representing the Holy Spirit.

Different from other representations of these biblical scenes, El Greco’s work is vivid and captivating, yet also has a certain melodrama to it with the gloomy backdrops. It is this contrast between dark shades and bold saturated light that makes The Annunciation so dramatic.

The Annunciation, El Greco

Portrait of a Young Man with a Golden Chain, Rembrandt van Rijn

While being credited to Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt, there is still a dispute over the authorship of Portrait of a Young Man with a Golden Chain (previously referred to as Self-Portrait with a Golden Chain). In the 1980s, specialists from the Rembrandt Research Project concluded that the painting was the work of a circle of artists in Rembrandt’s studio and not of Rembrandt himself, though 17th century documents and records suggest it is in fact a self-portrait.

Regardless of who painted it, the work is often considered one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces and the artist has left his signature on the subject’s right shoulder, only visible under infrared light.

Portrait of a Young Man with a Gold Chain, Rembrandt van Rijn

Four Ballet Dancers on Stage, Edgar Degas

One of French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas’ several works focusing on ballet dancers, Four Ballet Dancers on Stage is a classic example of why Degas loved to use dancers as his subjects. The figures are not in the center of the canvas, while one dancer is cut off to the right, a technique the artist used to make his depictions look more realistic and less like a posed study.

Degas was also a pioneer in using the optical properties of photography, and Four Ballet Dancers… illustrates this beautifully. On the central dancers tutu, his use of purple shadows serves to make the pink of the dress more vivid and striking. Meanwhile, on the dancers’ skin itself, dark green and blue patches blur the face, yet make the expressions and gestures all the more defined.

Four Ballet Dancers on Stage, Edgar Degas

Pink and Blue – The Cahen d’Anvers Girls, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Arguably the most popular piece in MASP’s permanent collection, Renoir’s Pink and Blue has been housed in São Paulo since 1952 and always attracts admiration from the museum’s visitors. The intricacy of the girls’ dresses and the fascinating shimmering effect that Renoir managed to capture on the satin waistbands are particularly striking.

The piece was commissioned by the girls’ father, the wealthy Jewish banker Louis Raphaël Cahen d’Anvers, in the 1870s. Renoir painted many portraits of the family, though that of the Cahen d’Anvers’ two youngest daughters, Elisabeth (the “Blue Girl”) and Alice (the “Pink Girl”), remains the most famous. Many years later, Elisabeth’s nephew saw the painting and set a letter to MASP, telling them of her fate. At the age of 69, she had died on a train on its way to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Pink and Blue – The Cahen d’Anvers Girls, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Bathers on the Seine, Édouard Manet

Similar to his world-renowned masterpieces Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass, MASP’s prized Manet piece, Bathers on the Seine is another of the controversial French Impressionist’s paraphrases of Renaissance masterpieces, adapted to become a social critique of Paris during the late 19th century.

Bathers on the Seine is a reinterpretation of the classic scene of Diana (the Roman goddess of hunting and the moon) bathing, but using the everyday setting of the River Seine instead.

Bathers on Seine, Édouard Manet

Boating on the River Epte, Claude Monet

In Boating on the River Epte, the viewer’s gaze is inevitably drawn to Monet’s fascinating study of the water, taking the central focus away from the two human figures in the painting’s upper half. With a thick layer of paint worked into incredible ridges which are amazing to see up close, Monet attempted to represent both the reflection of the water’s surface and the depth of the river, full of vegetation on its bed. The composition of the boat, being cut off to the right of the canvas, implying movement, also harks back to Monet’s influence from photography.

Boating on the River Apte, Claude Monet

The Great Pine, Paul Cézanne

Cézanne’s grand and heroic Great Pine stands out from its surroundings due to the imposing majesty of the tree, placed directly in the center of the canvas. It is said The Great Pine is based on a photograph of a pine tree which offered shelter to the artist during his childhood.

The Great Pine is a great example of Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist style, creating complex fields of color with small, detailed brushstrokes.

The Great Pine, Paul Cézanne

A Walk at Twilight, Vincent van Gogh

One of MASP’s permanent collection’s prized assets is the enchanting A Walk at Twilight by Vincent van Gogh, one of the five Van Gogh pieces in the museum, and one of the four from the artist’s last years of life. A Walk at Twilight is full of Van Gogh’s traditional motifs, such as the crescent moon and the olive and cypress trees.

The male figure in the painting bears a resemblance to Van Gogh himself, as seen in his self portraits, and it is interesting to note that here, one of the last paintings before his suicide, he is pictured with a female companion.

A Walk at Twilight, Vincent van Gogh

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