Tarsila do Amaral

One of the most influential Modern Artists in Brazil.

Sharon Lorenzo introduces us to Tarsila do Amaral at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – until June 3, 2018.

Best of Brazil for the closing ceremony 2016 Summer Games Tarsila do Amaral Image from the Closing Ceremony at 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Setting Sun, 1929, by Tarsila do AmaralSetting Sun, 1929, by Tarsila do Amaral


Self-portrait, 1924 Tarsila do AmaralSelf-portrait, 1924.

Born into a wealthy family on their coffee plantation near Sao Paolo, she studied piano, sculpture and drawing at the Colégio Santana nearby. In 1902 she went to Europe for the first time with her sister and parents and returned to Brazil to marry a physician, Andre Teixeira, with whom she had a daughter, Dulce.

The marriage ended in 1913, and by 1920 she was off to Europe again with her daughter to study art in Paris at the Académie Julian where she met many successful modern painters such as Fernand Leger.[1] In correspondence included in this exhibition at MoMA, we see from her letters home to her family her continuing connection to Brazil: “I feel increasingly Brazilian: I want to be the painter of my country.”[2]

In 1922 Tarsila and her daughter Dulce returned to Sao Paolo and she joined five other artists to form the Grupo dos Cinco. By 1923 she was back to Paris and traveled to Spain and Portugal to see the work of Picasso. She met a famous Brazilian poet during these travels, Oswald de Andrade, and by 1926 they were married. For his birthday in 1928, she presented Oswald with the painting below. He consulted the indigenous Tupi dictionary from Brazil and named the work: Abaporu which means, “person who eats.” [3] He used the image to illustrate an article he published entitled, “ Manifesto de Anthropophagy,” which described Tarsila’s symbolic digestion of her Brazilian heritage as a form of artistic cannibalism through which she absorbed, consumed and redefined her subjects as if digesting the concepts like food.

Abaporu, Tarsile do AmaralAbaporu, 1928.

Additionally, in this same year, Tarsila was invited to exhibit some of her work in a group art exhibition near Versailles. She showed the work below entitled A Negra, from 1923. Although slavery was outlawed in Brazil in 1888, the black presence was something Tarsila knew from her childhood on the coffee plantation. When asked about this image, she noted in a public interview that she was told that female slaves often tied rocks to their breasts to elongate them. They would then throw the breast over their shoulder to feed their child, whom they were carrying on their back, while working in the fields.[4]

A Negra, 1923 Tarsila AmaralA Negra, 1923.

Not all of her works were as strikingly radical as the Negress. Her playful images of imaginary critters in this piece show the more serene artist and mother painting for a larger public from her studio.

A Cuca Tarsila do AmaralA Cuca, 1924.

By 1929 with the fall of the US stock market, her family’s coffee business, like the rest of Brazil, was in terrible financial distress. Tarsila separated from Oswald and went on a trip with other friends to Russia. When she returned to Brazil, the entire group was put in jail for a month by the new dictator, Getulio Vargas. Following her release, she returned to her art work and in 1964 she was invited to represent Brazil in the Venice Biennial, showing some of her paintings such as these:

Urutu Viper, 1928. (venomous snake)
The Lake, 1928.

Scholars have noted that Tarsila forged a modernist vocabulary from her country’s anatomy, a kind of confident biomorphism of form, shapes, fruit and fauna. What I find so convincing is the matrix she made between imagination and representation. We can recognize the vivid flowers of Brazil resonating in their native landscape.   We can see the modernist influences from her time in Europe. She gave us a hybrid product that is fun, enjoyable and uniquely her own, after 87 years of engaging in the world of modern painting.

Self-portrait, 1923.


Museum of Modern Art, New York until June 3, 2018.


[1] Tarsila do Amaral, Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, p. 125, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p. 127.

[4] Ibid, p. 49, 1972.