Artist to Know: Tarsila do Amaral

Liz Catalano
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“The Picasso of Brazil” Featured in Upcoming Sale

Known almost universally in her native Brazil, Tarsila do Amaral was a Modernist leader in South America during the early 20th century. Her popularity has spread beyond Brazil’s borders within recent years, particularly after her first American exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018. A mixed media piece from the artist comes to auction on May 1, 2020, during Auction Kings’ Fine Art Assortment, Collectible Glass, and Jewelry sale. Get to know Tarsila do Amaral before the auction. 

Portrait of Tarsila do Amaral in profile, mid-1920s. Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection, São Paulo. Image from Artsy.
Portrait of Tarsila do Amaral in profile, mid-1920s. Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection, São Paulo. Image from Artsy.

Tarsila (as she is professionally known) was born in 1886 to a wealthy farming family. At the age of 34, she left her home to study art in Paris. It was during this period that she first engaged with several leading Cubist and Modernist painters. Later returning to Brazil, Tarsila and her husband, Oswald de Andrade, began integrating the ideas of Modernism into their work. Together with other artists, writers, and social agitators, Tarsila helped build a new artistic movement: Anthropofagia.

Inspired by Tarsila’s Abaporu painting, the Anthropofagia movement suggested that Brazil’s greatest strength was in “cannibalizing” European culture. The aim was to reclaim the remnants of colonialism and infuse them with a distinctly Brazilian heritage. As Tarsila continued creating art through periods of political instability, she made specific design choices to express her views. 

“In Minas, I found the colors I loved as a child. They taught me afterwards that they were ugly and redneck,” Tarsila said when describing her color palette. “But then I took revenge on the oppression, passing them to my canvases: the purest blue, violet pink, bright yellow, singing green…”

Abaporu. 1928. Tarsila do Amaral. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.
Abaporu. 1928. Tarsila do Amaral. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.

Abaporu, the painting that inspired the Anthropofagia movement, was sold at Christie’s for $1.4 million in 1995. Current estimates value the work at $40 million. Housed at the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA), owner Eduardo Costantini has worked to promote Tarsila’s broad cultural influence: “The integrity of the collection is beyond price.” 

In 2015, Tarsila’s landscape painting titled Paisagem X sold for BRL 265,000 (USD 51,000), 106% of the lot’s high estimate. The realized price for a 1950 flower painting was BRL 480,000 (USD 92,000), sold in 2004 by Companhia Arte. However, most of Tarsila’s works remain in Brazilian museums and cultural institutions as a testament to her lasting popularity.

James Rondeau, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has described her legacy: “For Brazilians, her recognition is kind of off the charts… She is the Picasso of Brazil.”

Tarsila do Amaral. Mixed media on cardboard. Image from Invaluable.
Tarsila do Amaral. Mixed media on cardboard. Image from Invaluable.

Active socially and politically throughout her career, Tarsila refused to separate her beliefs and ideals from her art. She was briefly imprisoned due to her involvement with the Brazilian Communist Party and was outspoken in her views. After Getúlio Vargas’ regime rose to power in the 1930s, Tarsila shifted her subject matter from nature scenes to more explicitly Marxist images. 

Writing for Artnet News, Sara Roffino has analyzed Tarsila’s later career: “… she spent the years from 1930 onward explicitly addressing issues of class, consumption, capitalism, and exploitation of people and land, [making] it clear that her life’s work was far from limited to purely formal innovation or a nostalgic search for identity.” 

An example of Tarsila’s early work will be available in the upcoming Auction Kings sale. It was painted and signed by the artist in 1931. The piece depicts blue and pink flowers against an ivory background and has a high estimate of USD 18,000. 

View this example of Tarsila’s work and browse the complete auction catalog by visiting Invaluable.