Classicism in Brazil

Artists have consistently been inspired by and returned to the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, which is referred to as ‘classicism.’ Alberti once equated classicism and beauty in regard to architecture, defining beauty as, “The harmony and concord of all the parts achieved by following well-founded rules [based on the study of ancient works] and resulting in a unity such that nothing can be added or taken away or altered except for the worse.”[1] By this definition, the classical phase is the moment when the style is at its fullest, following a primitive or less completely realized phase.[2] In the art world, the word classicism connotes a standard of excellence as well as power and authority; classicism connotes a hierarchy of the arts and it recognized as ‘high-art.’[3] Perhaps the formal influence of the art of ancient Greece and Rome is felt all over the world because this word is so strong.

The appeal of classicism is visible everywhere including in Brazil. In the years of colonialism, Portugal and other European powers sought to surpass each other in terms of the number of colonies they monopolized and the wealth they accumulated. Portugal sought to flex its metaphorical muscles through urban design, by changing the Brazil environment in an attempt to ‘civilize’ the nation.[4] By colonizing Brazil, the borders were opened not only to immigrants but to art. The new ideas provoked serious social changes and lead to the loss of traditional visual forms.[5] Portugal achieved the introduction of European style and classicism through the architecture program of the Academia Imperial e Escola de Belas Artes, an institution that was originally set up as a school of arts and crafts.[6] Budding artists were educated under the Academia’s artistic program and thus were forced to follow the artistic practices imposed upon them. The Academia expanded for many years, even growing to encompass a landscape school in 1870 that conformed to the classical ideologies while still portraying the Brazilian environment.[7] Although the Portuguese granted Brazil independence in 1822, the influence of European styles lived on through the Academia. French taste was pervasive there; the artistic program was structured exclusively on the canons of neo-classicism.[8]

Those responsible for Europeanizing Brazil used elements of the classical style on religious and governmental buildings to demonstrate the permanence of European ideals in comparison to the so-called ‘savage’ traditions of the past.[9] A church in Rio de Janeiro, known as Candelaria, conforms to the standard European formula prevalent at the time. The classical proportions and many details, such as the use of paired pilasters topped with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capitals, illustrate how Brazilian architecture draws inspiration from the classical world.[10] Classicism always been based on harmony and symmetry, also evident at Candelaria in the identical towers that frame the dome. The dome represents the neo-classical ideals of nineteenth century Rio, and was crowned with a statue of the allegory of Hope.[11]

Over the years, classicism extended its influence through the major centers of Brazil. The Academia trained young architects who traveled around Brazil repeating classical ideals after they had graduated.[12] Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851-1928) was one of these eager young students, and he was responsible for the expansion of classicism in Sao Paulo. Educated in the academic style, Azevedo was responsible for much of the reconstruction of Sao Paulo, including the Municipal Theatre, completed in 1911.[13] Originally devised by the Italian architect Domiziano Rossi, Azevedo directed the construction and ultimately determined the final design of the Municipal Theatre.[14] One can see the classical influence of the building, with the harmonious arcades that line the façade to create the balance and unity sought after in the classical ages. Stylistic columns conforming to the traditional proportions also adorn the exterior of the building to add to the classical appeal.

Beyond architecture, the classical style was also influential for other artistic practices in Brazil. Painters adapted the classical styles to those of Europe. Among them was Rodolfo Amoedo (1857-1941) who painted Maraba, located in the National Museum of Fine Arts.[15] The work represents an indigenous woman in a European pose surrounded by a landscape. The painting demonstrates the restraint and closed composition typical of the classic style.[16] The use of an indigenous woman applies Brazilian roots into this classical piece demonstrating the use of classicism in a modern context. Although some artists were able to introduce Brazilian subject matter and references into their artwork, they were constrained by models set by the Council of Trent for religious institutions.[17]

Despite the success met by the introduction of classicism into Latin America, it eventually came to a close. After years of monopolizing the Brazilian artistic output, new styles developed and Rio’s Academia Imperial e Escola de Belas Artes was finally closed.[18] Artists, such as Candido Portinari (1903-1962), took over with new forms of expression inspired by post-colonial life. Interested in becoming a painter from a young age, Portinari entered into the Academia and enrolled in life class.[19] But he was still determined to paint his own country, not the romanticized version that had been portrayed for centuries, so he abandoned his classical training. We might say that although classicism has been abandoned by modern day Brazil, the remnants are found in the skeletons of old buildings and within museums.[20]

Emily Read

Works Cited

[1] “Classicism and Neoclassicism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 10 Nov. 2009 <;.

[2] Thomas Pavel, “Classicism,” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Ed. Michael Kelly, Oxford Art Online, 20 Nov. 2009 <;.

[3] The characteristics valued within ancient Greece and Rome range from unity, balance and harmony to proportion and restraint. The intent was to construct an ideal vision of human experience that should inspire others through rationality and truth. Michael Greenhalgh, “Classicism,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, 20 Nov. 2009 <;.

[4]For additional information regarding the ‘civilizing’ of Brazil through urban planning, read Roberta M. Delson’s article
“Planners and Reformers: Urban Architects of Late Eighteenth-Century Brazil.” It discusses the Portuguese’s belief that by creating harmonious and restrained urban areas for the ‘savage’ Brazilians, the environment will help adapt their behavior into more civilized individuals. Damian Bayon and Murillo Marx, History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture: Spanish South America and Brazil (New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc, 1992) 293.

[5] Ivo Mesquita, “Brazil,” Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century, Ed. Edward J. Sullivan. (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000) 202.

[6] Carlos Lemos, Jose Roberto Teixeira Leite and Pedro Manuel Gismonti, The Art of Brazil (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983) 153.

[7] Aracy Amaral and Kim Mrazek Hastings, “Stages in the Formation of Brazil’s Cultural Profile,” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts vol.21 (1995):13, JSTOR, 28 Sept. 2009 <;

[8] Roberto Pontual and Christopher Hartop, “Brazil,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, 5 Nov. 2009 <;.

[9] David Underwood, “‘Civilizing’ Rio de Janeiro: Four Centuries of Conquest Through Architecture,” Art Journal 51.4 (1992): 49, JSTOR, 26 Sept. 2009 <;.

[10] Underwood 52.

[11] The dome demonstrates ideals from the mid nineteenth century because it was completed in 1878, while the rest of the church was finished by 1811. Underwood 54.

[12] Lemos, The Art of Brazil 162.

[13] Carlos Lemos, “Azevedo, Francisco de Paula Ramos de,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, 10 Nov. 2009 <;.

[14] Lemos, “Azevedo.”

[15] Amaral and Hastings 14.

[16] “Classicism and Neoclassicism.”

[17] Tania Costa Tribe, “The Mulatto as Art and Image in Colonial Brazil,” Oxford Art Journal 19.1 (1996): 73, JSTOR, 7 Oct. 2009 < >

[18] Amaral and Hastings 14.

[19] Florence Horn, “Portinari of Brazil,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 7.6 (1940): 4, JSTOR, 26 Sept. 2009 <;.

[20] In one symbolic move away from classicism, a project was undertaken to strip the exterior of the Fine Arts Museum in Sao Paolo, originally adorned in a neo-classical style. This action represents a renewal of Brazil’s desire to strip away its history of colonial domination.

This entry was posted in Academia Imperial e Escola de Belas Artes, Amoedo, architecture, Azevedo, Brazil, Classicism, Portinari. Bookmark the permalink.

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