Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), one of the most influential painters in the early modern art movement in Brazil, broke all the roles in her work and in her personal life. Her nephew, Guilherme Augusto do Amaral, once her lawyer and now the executor of her estate, remembers her visiting his home when he was a child. "The first time I met her was when I was very young and she came to the house carrying her painting Operarios. I was so impressed with her and with her painting. She was elegant, cultured, and sophisticated. She was very kind to the children and had strong bonds with the family. But it was a very formal, conventional upper-class family and they were sometimes shocked by her," he said.
A strong woman with the courage to live life on her own terms, Tarsila studied the new styles of art in Paris in the 1920s and was friends with all the important musicians, artists, and writers living there. A great beauty, she was noticed wherever she went. In the early 1920s, she became part of a group of writers and artists who staged the Week of Modern Art in Sao Paulo. The goal of this group was to eliminate excess European influence and dominance in Brazilian arts and culture and to depict their own country with its festivals, African influence, indigenous cultures, and tropical colors.
Tarsila's paintings represented a break from the conservative academic trend of the time and incorporated the new trends of Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism to portray the Brazil she loved. Her most famous painting, Abaporu, was sold at Christie's in New York in 1995 for US$1.3 million dollars, a record for a Brazilian painting.
Tarsila grew up amid the splendor of the coffee-growing elite during the coffee boom in Brazil. Her father was a wealthy coffee planter, and she had all the advantages of a child of her class. Her home was a happy one on the family farm, Sao Bernardo, in the interior of Sao Paulo state. A young Belgian woman lived in the house and taught French to Tarsila and her siblings. In time, Tarsila would speak French like a native. It was a cultured household. Her mother, a talented pianist, played the piano in the afternoons in a library filled with French books. The food was imported directly from France, and the clothing was French as well. Tarsila and her siblings were acquainted with the works of the French writers and poets like Voltaire and Victor Hugo from an early age.
In her mother's room, Tarsila liked to play with a tape measure that had portraits of all the French kings on it. But what she loved most about the farm was the freedom to play outside in the forest surrounding the house. Years later she would remember: "I was always very free on the farm. I was always playing, running, climbing, and falling out of trees." Later she wrote to her mother from Paris: "I feel increasingly Brazilian. I want to be the painter of my country. How thankful I am to have passed my whole childhood on the farm. Memories of those times are becoming precious to me." She never forgot her Brazilian roots and her love for her country would help to revolutionize art in Brazil.
Tarsila had four husbands. The first, whom she married in 1906, was the father of her only child but did not share her interest in books, music, and art. They were together for seven years in a marriage that felt suffocating to her. Unlike most women of her time and class who were expected to resign themselves to unhappy marriages, Tarsila separated from her husband and went to Sao Paulo to study art. Her family was scandalized by this. In Sao Paulo she studied sculpture, painting, and design with well-known and admired teachers, including painter Pedro Alexandrino and sculptor William Zadig. From these teachers she learned conservative techniques.
After a previous visit to Paris to study art, Tarsila returned to Paris in 1923 with poet and writer Oswald de …