A brief introduction to Portuguese art, Art

A brief introduction to Portuguese art

Portugal has a rich and varied art history dating back to the fifteenth century, but little is known of it outside of Portugal. Through the centuries there have been Portuguese artists who deserve to be judged as equal to the great artists from other parts of Europe and below is a brief introduction to some of those artists.

Nuno Gonçalves (active c.1450-c.1491)

Nuno Gonçalves, Painéis de São Vicente, c.1470, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

The Renaissance painter Nuno Gonçalves is acknowledged as the founder of the Portuguese school of painting and the ‘Portuguese Primitive’style. He was the court painter to King Afonso V and in his most famous painting, Painéis de São Vicente (Saint Vincent Panels c.1470) he puts a religious subject in a contemporary setting making it an important record of Portuguese society in the mid-fifteenth century. It was originally part of an altar in Lisbon Cathedral and is now one of the prized exhibits in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. There are six panels, the larger two central ones both show Saint Vicent, the patron saint of Lisbon, in the foreground dressed in red and gold robes and surrounded by the nobility and other important members of Portuguese society, including the royal family and the Archbishop of Lisbon. In the other four panels other sectors of Portuguese society are represented, including knights, monks, a fisherman, a Jewish scholar, a beggar and a city official. However, it is debated who the actual members of the royal family are and in particular the figure in black to the right of the Saint in the third panel, who is generally thought to be Prince Henrique the Navigator, as it was painted during Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery, but there is a convincing argument that it is his brother King Duarte and that Henrique is in fact the kneeling figure in the fifth panel and that depicting him kneeling was a political attempt to humiliate him.

Jorge Afonso (c.1470-c.1540)

Jorge Afonso, Aparição de Cristo à Virgem, 1515, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Jorge Afonso was the court painter to King Manuel I and his son King João III during the Renaissance period. He also had a workshop in Lisbon in which many of the foremost sixteenth-century Portuguese artists trained and worked, including Gaspar Vaz and Gregório Lopes. His work was influenced by the Flemish painters of the time as can be seen in the most famous work attributed to him, an altarpiece painted for the Madre de Deus convent in Lisbon in 1515, sections of which are in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, including the painting Aparição de Cristo à Virgem (Apparition of Christ to the Virgin) in which, on the right half of the painting, the resurrected Jesus, who is naked from the waist up and wearing a red cloth around the lower half of his body, appears before a kneeling, praying Virgin Mary dressed as a nun inside a convent-like building, with what appears to be a cloister in the background. On the left-hand side of the painting, in an exterior scene stand four people three of whom are thought to represent Adam and Eve and John the Baptist or one of the other apostles. Behind them is a turreted castle-like building. The detail in the decoration on the pillars and also in the depiction of the naked human form is impressive.

Grão Vasco (c.1475-c.1543)

Vasco Fernandes, better known as Grão Vasco (the Great Vasco) was born in Viseu and, like Jorge Afonso, was influenced by the painters of the Flemish school. Although little is known of his early life, it is assumed that he trained in Lisbon or even abroad as there is a high level of technical competence in his work, as shown in the majestic São Pedro (Saint Peter, painted for Viseu Cathedral c.1529), on display in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu, in which Saint Peter, dressed in a regal gown and wearing a crown on his head, is seated on a throne looking directly out of the painting. He is blessing the viewer with his right hand with an open Bible on his lap. Behind him in two symmetrical windows are two scenes from the life of Saint Peter: being called by Christ and meeting a risen Jesus as he flees from his own crucifixion. The painting show a mastery of technique in the characterisation in Saint Peter’s facial expression, along with the use of rich colour, detailed decoration and delicate light. Another noteworthy work is from the original altarpiece of Viseu Cathedral which in 18 panels depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the early life of Christ and the Passion, painted between 1501 and 1506. The 15 surviving panels are now in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu, including a panel depicting the Adoration of the Magi (Adoração dos Magos) which is notable for the characterization of Balthazar as an Indian from Brazil shown wearing traditional clothes, a feather headdress and carrying a large arrow. Vasco’s representation, based on written accounts from the recently discovered Brazil, is thought to be the first image of a native Brazilian in Western art.

Gregório Lopes (c.1490-1550)

Gregório Lopes, Martírio de São Sebastião, c.1536-38, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Gregório Lopes trained in the workshop of Jorge Afonso, whose daughter he married, and later became the court painter to King Manuel I andKing JoãoIII. His style shows a transition from the Flemish style favoured by his contemporaries to an Italian Renaissance style as shown in his most famouswork, Martírio de São Sebastião (Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, c.1536-38), painted for the Conventde Cristo in Tomar and now on display in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, which depicts a serene-looking Saint Sebastian in the central foreground of a landscape tied to a post wearing nothing but a cloth around his genital area with arrows in his chest. Either side of him in the foreground are two archers aiming arrows at him, while in the background is a city scene with people going about their daily life. On the extreme right-hand side there is a fire with thick smoke coming from it and a crowd has gathered to watch what is presumably an auto-de-fé. The colours are muted, dominated by shades of brown.

Gaspar Vaz (c.1495-1569)

Gaspar Vaz trained under Jorge Afonso in Lisbon and was a contemporary of Grão Vasco, also coming from Viseu, and their work is often confused, although his style is less technically competent and less detailed, particularly in the depiction of the human form. This can be seen in his painting Virgem da Anunciação (The Virgin of the Annunciation c.1530), done for the Igreja Matriz de Barreiro in Tondela, which now hangs in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu. In the centre of the painting the young Virgin Mary is shown seated, looking down with a serene expression on her face as she has just heard the Angel’s message, and her hands together not quite in prayer. A dove in a pool of golden light flutters near her head. A red curtain to the left of the painting contrasts with the brown of the wall behind her and the dark blue clothes she is wearing. While her face lacks character and her long thin fingers are anatomically incorrect, there is a delicacy in the way Vaz has conveyed light and shade in the curtain and her headscarf.

Cristóvão de Morais (active c.1539-80)

Cristóvão de Morais, Retrato de D. Sebastião, c.1571-74, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Cristóvão de Morais studied in Antwerp and later became the court painter to King João III and King Sebastião, painting many royal portraits. His most famous work, which can be seen in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, is the mannerist-style Retrato de D. Sebastião (Portrait of King Sebastião, c.1571-74), which shows the 16- or 17-year-old King dressed in armour with his left hand holding a sword and looking disdainfully at the viewer. Using a limited colour palette, the black background and dark armour dominate the painting, making the areas of colour stand out, namely King Sebastião’s face and hands and the richly ornate gold detail on the armour.

Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684)

Josefa de Óbidos, Agnus Dei, c.1660-70, Museu de Évora

Josefa de Ayala e Cabrera (better known as Josefa de Óbidos)is Portugal’s most famous Baroque artist and a rare female artist at a time when most artists were men. Josefa lived in Óbidos all of her adult lifeand the name Josefa de Óbidos comes from the fact that she often signed her paintings ‘Josefa em Óbidos’. Her father, Baltazar Gomes Figueira, was also anartist who had spent some time in Seville and became interested in the bodegón style (a still life with objects from daily life, especially food and drink), which he shared with Josefa. She was educated in a convent and although she never took religious vows she lived a nun-like life, remaining chaste throughout her life. Many of her paintings have a religious theme, but she combines it with the everyday and there is a sense of innocence in them far removed from the traditional religious images. This can be seen in Agnus Dei (c.1660-70)) in the Museu de Évora in which the focus is on a lamb with its legs bound lying on a dark table against a dark background. On the table a line in Latin from the Bible, ‘occisus ab origine mundi’ (‘slain from the foundation of the world’) is written. All the light is coming from the lamb which lies serenely awaiting its fate (symbolizing Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God) and the only bold colour in thepainting comes from a Baroque wreath of flowers and grapes that surrounds the lamb. It is very reminiscent of the still lives with food and drink that she is most famous for. These are characterized by a horizontal arrangement of everyday objects in bold colours against a very dark background, as exemplified in the painting Natureza Morta: Caixas, Barros e Flores (Still Life: Boxes, Earthenware and Flowers, c.1660-70) in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon in which two boxes, a glass bowl on a silver stand and a red earthenware jar are lined up horizontally on a table against a black background. There are large red flowers wrapped around the jar, which also extend into the background, and also small white and red flower heads scattered on the table in the foreground. The materials of the wooden boxes, the glass bowl, the silver stand and the red earthenware jug are skilfully conveyed from a palette of red, white and brown and the vibrancy of these colours draw the eye to the painting.

Josefa de Óbidos, Natureza Morta: Caixas, Barros e Flores, c.1660-70, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Domingos António de Sequeira (1768-1837)

Domingos António de Sequeira, O Beijo de Judas, c.1820-30, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Domingos António de Sequeira initially trained at the public drawing classes in the Caetanos Convent in Lisbon and then continued his training in Rome. On his return to Portugal he became the court painter tothe Prince Regent João (who later became King João VI) and painted many royal portraits and episodes from history in the Neo-classical style. In the 1820s he moved to Paris and then returned to Rome where he remained until his death. During this time he was influenced by the developing Romantic movement and his later works, many of which have religious themes, are in the Romantic style,focussing more on the emotions of the characters rather than on realistic depiction and are considered by many art historians to be his best works, as can be seen in O Beijo de Judas (The Judas Kiss, c.1820-30) in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. In this painting done in Indian ink and white gouache on brown paper he depicts Jesus being kissed by Judas while being surrounded by the soldiers who have come to arrest him. Jesus is lit up by a bright light that one of the soldiers is holding, while everything else is in shadow and this, combined with Sequeira’s relaxed brushstrokes gives the painting an emotional and disturbing quality.

José Malhoa (1855-1933)

José Malhoa, O Fado, 1910, Museu da Cidade, Lisbon

José Malhoa is one of the main famous Portuguese Naturalist painters. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and was later influenced by the French Barbizon school and was a founder member of the Grupo do Leão (Lion’s Group), a group of intellectuals, artists and writers who met in the Leão de Ouro café in Lisbon, in 1880. He painted scenes often showing ordinary people from the poorer parts of society, including Os Bêbados (The Drunks, 1907) on display in the Museu de José Malhoa in Caldas da Rainha, which shows a group of peasants in a state of inebriation after drinking the new wine on St Martin’s Day and O Fado (The Fado, 1910) on display in the Museu da Cidade in Lisbon, in which he captures the underbelly of the working-class districts of Alfama and Mouraria at a time when fado was performed ininsalubrious brothels and bars. The painting depicts a poor and dirty prostitute listening with rapture to a man playing the guitarra. In order to get authenticity, Malhoa used real people as models: namely, a petty criminal called Amâncio and a prostitute called Adelaide da Facada (named after a scar she had on her left cheek).

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (1857-1929)

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, O Grupo do Leão, 1885, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro is considered to be the greatest late-nineteenth-century Portuguese painter, who captured the changing Portuguese society at the end of the century in his Naturalistic portraits. He came from an artistic family: his father was an artist and his brother was the caricaturist and ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then continued his studies in Paris. His work is characterized by his sober use of colour, often painting in brown tones, giving a dark appearance and with broad brushstrokes that lead to lack of definition. He painted many of the major figures of the time, including the writer Eça de Queiros and the Republican politician Teófilo Braga. Along with José Malhoa, he was a member of the Grupo do Leão and one of his most famous works is O Grupo do Leão (The Lion’s Group, 1885) on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. The painting, which was done for the café, shows the modern artists of the time (including the aforementioned José Malhoa (seated sideways in the foreground on the left with his hand on his leg) and Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (sat on the other side of the table on the right, wearing a hat) as well as Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro himself (standing behind Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, wearing a top hat)) sat and standing at a table grouped around a central figure (António Carvalho de Silva Porto, the artist who introduced the Barbizon school to Portugal, sat in the middle on the other side of the table) in an arrangement which makes reference to the Last Supper. It is a huge monochromatic interior scene which is like a photograph in which everyone is caught in a moment looking at the viewer, but is made abstract by the use of light and shadows and blurred lines.

António Carneiro (1872-1930)

António Carneiro, Contemplação, 1911, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

António Carneiro studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then moved to Paris where he became interested in the Symbolist movement. On his return to Portugal he became involved in the cultural magazine A Águia (The Eagle) as artistic director from its foundation in 1910 to 1927. He also taught in the School of Fine Arts in Porto, while continuing to paint. He painted a prodigious amount of portraits, but his real interest was in landscapes and over the years his style developed from the early Naturalist landscapes influenced by the Barbizon school to paintings which conveyed an expression of his personal response to the landscape, as can be seen in Contemplação (Contemplation, 1911), on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. In this painting a young woman is standing on some craggy rocks overlooking the sea. She is wearing a very large hat and we cannot see her face. The clothes she is wearing are painted in similar shades of light pink and purple to the rocks and sky and she has become part of the landscape. The painting is imbued with a sense of melancholy.

Eduardo Viana (1881-1967)

Eduardo Viana, A Revolta das Bonecas, 1916, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Eduardo Viana studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts inLisbon and then moved to Paris in 1905, where he became interested in the works of Cézanne and the Fauvist movement. On his return to Portugal in 1915, he lived with Sonia and Robert Delaunay, the founders of the Orphism art movement which used geometric shapes in bold colours. This further influenced his style and he began creating works that were abstract, such as A Revolta das Bonecas (The Dolls’ Revolt, 1916), on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. In this painting Viana uses circles, rectangles and triangles in contrasting colours to depict deconstructed dolls.

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918)

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Pelas Janelas (Desdobramento – Intersecção), 1914, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso studied architecture at the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon for a year and then moved to Paris to continue his studies. There he met other ex-pat Portuguese artists, including Eduardo Viana and abandoned architecture to concentrate on painting. He also became friends with the avant-garde artists Constantin Brâncuși, Amedeo Modigliani and Sonia and Robert Delauney and after his return to Portugal at the outbreak of the First World War he set up the group La Corporation Nouvelle (The New Corporation) with the Delauneys, Eduardo Viana and José de Almada Negreiros, in which they were all experimenting with Orphism, influenced by Cubism but with abstract images in bold colours. However, it is hard to define Souza-Cardoso’s style, as he was influenced by many of the artistic movements of the early twentieth century and his work shows elements of Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Fauvism. His 1914 work Pelas Janelas (Desdobramento – Intersecção) (Through the Windows (Unfolding – Intersection)), on display in the Museu Coleção Berardo in Lisbon, is a Cubist-influenced painting in which he uses a series of simple geometric shapes in natural shades of blue, green, yellow and orange layered over each other to give perspective.

José de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970)

José de Almada Negreiros, Retrato de Fernando Pessoa, 1964, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

José de Almada Negreiros was a Modernist artist and part of the avant-garde Futurist movement. He was an artist in the fullest sense of the word, for, as well as paintings, drawings and murals, he also wrote novels, poems and essays, could turn his hand to acting and dancing and designed theatrical sets. During the Salazar dictatorship (which lasted from the 1930s to the 1970s) he managed to walk a fine line between his government-approved public works and his private works that were critical of Portuguese society at the time. He is most known for his richly coloured paintings with abstract geometric elements, as seen in the Retrato de Fernando Pessoa (Portrait of Fernando Pessoa, 1964), which can be seen in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and is a replica of a portrait he created in 1954 for the Irmãos Unidos restaurant in Lisbon, a restaurant that the Modernists would meet in. In the portrait of Portugal’s greatest Modernist writer, Fernando Pessoa is portrayed sitting at a café table with a cigarette in one hand and his other hand resting on a piece of writing paper which is lying on the table with a pen across it. Also on the table is a coffee cup and two books, the cover of the top one reads ‘Orpheu 2’ (the name of the Modernist literary magazine that Almada Negreiros and Pessoa created together in 1915 and of which only two editions were ever published). The predominant colours in the painting are bold reds and oranges in geometric patterns on the floor and back wall, with the solitary figure of Pessoa, in the middle of the painting, dressed in black with his distinctive hat, glasses and moustache.

Júlio Pomar (1926-2018)

Júlio Pomar, O Gadanheiro, 1945, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Júlio Pomar studied at the School of Fine Arts in both Lisbon and Porto, but did not complete the course. In the 1940s he was influenced by the Neo-realism movement and around the same time joined the Portuguese Communist Party, and both of these influences were reflected in the themes of his work. Many of his works were considered politically subversive by the Salazar regime. By the early 1960s, when he moved to Paris, he had begun to move away from Neo-realism and was experimenting with other styles and even other media. Over his long career he produced works in various media, including painting, drawing, ceramics, sculpture and collage. The painting O Gadanheiro (The Reaper, 1945), on display in Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacionalde Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon, is an example of Pomar’s Neo-realism period. The painting is a portrait of a farm labourer cutting wheat with a scythe. However, the image is distorted with parts of the man’s body being out of proportion. In the foreground, the scythe dominates the painting as it moves through the wheat, which along with the storm clouds in the background, gives a sense of menace. The subject matter was politically subversive as, by putting the worker at the centre, it drew attention to the social and political situation of the working class in Portugal at the time.

José Escada (1934-1980)

José Escada, Le Rève Argente, 1967, São Roque Antiguidades e Galeria de Arte, Lisbon

José Escada was a painter and three-dimensional artist. He studied at the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then was part of the Movement for the Renewal of Religious Art (MRAR) and the Café Gelo Group with other artists in the late 1950s, before moving to Paris where he lived for 10 years. His paintings were abstract and later he created three-dimensional cut-outs and collages, inspired by Matisse, in which he explored the relationship between shape, light and shadow, as can be seen in Le Rève Argente (The Silver Dream, 1967), on diplay in the São Roque Antiguidades e Galeriade Arte in Lisbon. The relief is composed of cut-outs in aluminium emerging from the background creating concave and convex patterns, in such a way that the viewer gets a different viewing experience depending on where he or she is standing. In the late 1970s his work became more figurative and autobiographical, as can be seen in O Atelier (The Studio, 1979, private collection), a personal and intimate interior showing the artist’s view from his desk as he works of the room that has become his world.

José Escada, O Atelier, 1979, private collection

Paula Rego (b.1935)

Paula Rego, Self-portrait in Red, 1962, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Paula Rego is without doubt the most internationally known Portuguese artist, having lived and worked in London since the early 1950s, where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and later became Artist-in-Residence at the National Gallery. She grew up in the Fascist dictatorship of Salazar’s Portugal in a middle-class family where wealthy women were encouraged to do nothing and many of her paintings reflect this repressive society. Her works are often disturbing and funny at the same time and her art is a place where she can explore her desires, fears and memories, as can be seen in the surrealist Self-portrait in Red (1962), on display in Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon, which contains fragmented autobiographical elements far removed from traditional self-portraits. The background is bright red with a collage of fragmented images painted or glued on, including a figure of a young girl in the centre surrounded by images of grotesque children’s story-like characters. In her later works Rego has used a more figurative style in which women are often portrayed with manly features and the themes of domination, sexuality, fear and grief recur. In The Family (1988, Marlborough International Fine Art), painted as her husband was dying of a degenerative illness, the mannequin-like man is seated on the bed being dressed, undressed or even sexually abused by two of the three females in the room. The characters are distorted and complex emotions, ranging from tenderness to anger, are suggested, giving a sense of unease.

Paula Rego, The Family, 1988, Marlborough International Fine Art, London

Joana Vasconcelos (b.1971)

Joana Vasconcelos, A Noiva, 2001-2005, António Cachola Collection, Elvas

Joana Vasconcelos is one of Portugal’s best-known contemporary artists and is widely exhibited internationally as well as within Portugal. She studied art and jewellery design at the Centro de Arte e Comunicação in Lisbon. She takes everyday objects and transforms them into something else in a surprising, funny or shocking way. There is often a feminist message in her art. Her most famous work is A Noiva (The Bride, 2001-2005) which put her on the international scene in 2005 when she exhibited in the 51st Venice Biennale. It is an five-metre high white chandelier that is made entirely of tampons.