Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy – and inequality – of colonial Rio

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the French Artistic Mission to Brazil, whose mission was to launch an arts academy in Rio de Janeiro and introduce European Neoclassicism to the city, which had recently become the capital of the short-lived United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.

Ultimately, the Mission’s most lasting accomplishment may have been introducing Jean-Baptiste Debret to Brazil. Debret, who was educated at the French Academy of Fine Arts before earning his keep as a Bonapartist painter, quickly became a favorite of Rio’s Portuguese court in exile, which would become the Empire of Brazil as Dom Pedro I declared Independence in 1822.

But Debret was more than a royal sycophant. He had a keen eye for social inequality, and after returning to France in 1934, his paintings depicting daily life in Rio, collected in a series of engravings titled A Picturesque and Historic Voyage to Brazil, became one of the most important graphic documentations of colonial Brazil.

The exhibit Debret and the French Artistic Mission — 200 Years, unveiled Wednesday in Rio, features Debret 75 paintings and illustrations curated by Jacques Leenhardt, an art critic and director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. “He [Debret] produced more than 700 works, most of them watercolors, capturing the pulse of the court and the city,” Leenhardt said. The pieces on display are part of the collections of the Castro Maya Museums, two government-run institutions housing the late Franco-Brazilian industrialist Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya’s art collection.

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

Debret exhibit captures the vibrancy - and inequality - of colonial Rio

“[Debret] always emphasized that the indigenous and African cultures retained their importance, even when ravaged,” said Leenhardt. “He clearly demonstrates horror at the violence of slavery, and registers the cultural richness of those who were vanquished by colonialism.”

Debret e a Missão Artística Francesa – 200 anos
Thru Sept. 25
Museum Chácara do Céu
Rua Murtinho Nobre 93, Santa Teresa, 20241-050, Rio de Janeiro – RJ, Brazil

With reporting by ABr; photos by Fernando Frazão/ABr

Written by Sergio Barreto

Brazilian-American editor, web developer and (occasional) event promoter. As founder and content director for this site, I keep an eye on what's wrong with Brazil, but what really makes my heart beat faster is sharing the exciting things happening in Brazilian tech, music, film, and other creative industries.

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