In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brazilian Art and Architecture, Post-independence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Criticism and Theory
  • History of Exhibitions and Display
  • Architecture and Urbanism
  • Gender
  • Afro-Brazilian Art
  • Indigenous Art
  • Photography

Art History Brazilian Art and Architecture, Post-independence
Elena Shtromberg, Camilla Querin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0029


Often situated within the broader discipline of Latin American art, Brazilian art is distinguished by a unique linguistic and colonial history. Following the first encounter of Brazilian territory in 1500, the Portuguese attempted to pacify the different Indigenous tribes comprising the Tupi people occupying the territories along the Atlantic coast. Many tribes were put to work in the service of the Crown, particularly in harvesting commodities such as the red dye extracted from Brazilwood, the tree that gave Brazil its name. The Indigenous peoples, many of whom were decimated upon contact with heretofore unknown and infectious diseases brought from Europe, were later replaced by a huge influx of African enslaved people who were put to work on sugar plantations. A mixture of African, Indigenous, and Portuguese traditions thus characterizes much of Brazilian art well into the 20th century. One distinguishing feature of Brazilian artistic traditions was the arrival of the Portuguese royal family and their court to Brazil in 1807. Fearing the arrival of Napoleon’s army, the Portuguese king, John VI, fled to Rio de Janeiro, establishing the only monarchy in the Americas, which he ruled until 1822, when Brazil gained its independence. During the 19th century, Rio was established as the political and cultural capital of the Portuguese Empire. In 1816, the French Artistic Mission, comprising a group of French artists arrived in Rio to establish the first art academy there. The discussion of a nationally specific Brazilian art became possible during the 19th century, after the establishment of the first artistic institution dedicated to the teaching of art, the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts, which was later renamed the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (it underwent several other name changes through the century). The French Artistic Mission was dominated by European, namely, French artistic models, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. The transition from the 19th to the 20th century brought with it not only significant social upheavals, including the abolition of slavery in 1888, but also a renewed interest in a nationally specific Brazilian art. Modernism in Brazilian art had its culminating moment in 1922 with Modern Art Week in São Paulo, establishing this growing urban center as an important venue for the production and circulation of art. This renewal was furthered with the foundation of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951. By the 1960s and 1970s, Brazilian art was exhibited in important international exhibitions, and today Brazilian artists have a strong presence in all major international art fairs and biennials. Contemporary art, although the most difficult to classify as having any specifically Brazilian traits, is also the most well-known art by international audiences.

General Overviews

It is important to understand that there is not one cohesive version of Brazilian art history; instead, it is more accurate to speak of art histories. A relatively new field, published histories on the topic began to emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s. Much of the scholarship on Brazilian art is still in Portuguese, with the exception of a large number of studies in English on a few well-known contemporary artists, in particular, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. Many of the best English-language sources are exhibition catalogues, which tend to be either surveys spanning a broad chronology, or thematic, focused on one particular topic, making them difficult to incorporate wholesale into the classroom. This section considers the existing surveys of the history of Brazilian art and architecture. One of the first comprehensive surveys was organized in 1979 by the publisher Abril Cultural with the goal of introducing Brazilians to their art and culture; the two-volume publication Bardi 1979 is a wealth of information with essays by leading critics and historians covering a broad range of topics from precolonial Indigenous art to the contemporary period and introducing well-known monuments, artists, and artworks. That same year Livros Abril also published a condensed one-volume survey also entitled Arte no Brasil with six sections ranging from colonial art to contemporary art, including an introductory essay to Modern Brazilian Architecture by Oscar Niemeyer; this volume was translated into English as Lemos, et al. 1983. Zanini 1983, a two-volume work, also brings together a wide range of leading scholars in writing the history of Brazilian art from the precolonial to the present, with fifteen lengthy chapters. One notable audiovisual source is Pignatari 1989, a four-part documentary. Since 2000, several significant exhibitions and English-language histories have also been published. The most extensive is Aguilar 2000, a series of fourteen catalogues, each devoted to a wide range of topics such as folk, Afro-Brazilian, modern, and contemporary art. Sullivan 2001 spans five hundred years of artistic production in Brazil and is lavishly illustrated. Sadlier 2008 is a cultural history survey focused on representations of Brazil from 1500 to the present. One of the most recent English-language surveys is a special issue of Third Text (see Martins 2012, cited under Criticism and Theory) dedicated to a range of topics in Brazilian art from the 19th century to the present. With a much narrower focus, Cardoso 2008 examines twenty-five of the most well-known paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Aguilar, Nelson. Brasil +500: mostra do redescobrimento. 14 vols. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2000.

    A quincentenary initiative led by curator Nelson Aguilar for the year 2000 to showcase and celebrate Brazil’s cultural production. Resulted in a series of fourteen catalogues each devoted to either a specific chronology or a theme. Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian art, the distant view, 19th century, modern and contemporary are a few examples of the different catalogues. Mostly bilingual and useful for historical information.

  • Bardi, Pietro Maria. Arte no Brasil. 2 vols. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1979.

    One of the first Portuguese-language surveys of Brazilian art with ample illustrations. The two-volume publication covers Indigenous art, and the final essay is on the 1950s and 1960s. Also includes a useful glossary of terms, artist biographies, index of museums, and chronology.

  • Cardoso, Rafel. A arte brasileira em 25 quadros, 1790–1930. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2008.

    Cardoso tells the history of Brazilian art from the late 18th to the 20th centuries through a close study of twenty-five important paintings by the country’s most renowned artists. With extensive contextual information, useful questions on the importance of the works, and further reading, this book would be an excellent supplement to a class on Brazilian art. Includes black/white and color illustrations.

  • Lemos, Carlos Alberto Cerqueira, José Roberto Teixeira Leite, and Pedro Manuel Gismonti. The Art of Brazil. Translated by Jennifer Clay. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

    One of the first English-language surveys available. Translation of Arte no Brasil (São Paulo: Livros Abril, 1982). A condensed version of the 1979 publication, with six chapters from colonial to contemporary art. Heavy on architecture, includes an introduction by the architect Pietro M. Bardi and an essay by Oscar Niemeyer on modern architecture. Slightly outdated but includes ample color illustrations.

  • Pignatari, Décio, dir. Panorama histórico brasileiro. 3 DVDs. São Paulo: Instituto Cultural Itaú, 1989.

    A Portuguese-language documentary addressing national identity, history, culture, art, society, and politics. Comprises four brief segments: A arte no auge do imperio (“Art at the height of empire”); Anos 30: Entre duas guerras, entre duas artes (“The 30s: Between wars”); Nasce a republica (“The republic is born”); and Pos-modernidade (“Postmodernity”). Includes footage from the belle époque era and addresses broader political and social movements surrounding the emergence of these different artistic moments.

  • Sadlier, Darlene J. Brazil Imagined: 1500 to the Present. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

    This English-language survey is one of the first to explore cultural production in its social and historical context in Brazil from colonial times to the present. The scope, tone, and its historical perspective makes it useful for undergraduate survey classes on Brazilian art and culture.

  • Sullivan, Edward J., ed. Brazil: Body and Soul. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2001.

    One of the most comprehensive English-language exhibit catalogues bringing together a wide range of texts on topics that include Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, architecture, and cinema. It is amply illustrated with high-quality color images and bibliographies on selected themes, media, and artists. Very useful for teaching.

  • Zanini, Walter Albuquerque, ed. História geral da arte no Brasil. 2 vols. São Paulo: Instituto Walter Moreira Salles, 1983.

    Among the first comprehensive (two-volume) Portuguese surveys on Brazilian art from Indigenous to modern art. The first covers the precolonial period through the 20th century; the second has chapters on modern art and architecture, photography, industrial design, Afro-Brazilian art, and art education.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.