Background: Tarsila do Amaral was born in the city of Capivari, part of the interior of São Paulo, Brazil on September 1, 1886, to a wealthy family who were coffee growers and landowners. Her family’s position provided her a life of privilege. Although women of privilege were not expected to seek higher education, her parents supported her educational and artistic pursuits.
Beginning in 1916, Tarsila studied sculpture in São Paulo with Zadig and Montavani. Later she studied drawing and painting with the academic painter Pedro Alexandrino. These were all respected but conservative teachers. In 1920, she moved to Paris and studied at the Academy Julian with Emile Renard. The Brazilian art world was conservative, and travels to Europe provided students with a broader education in the areas of art, culture, and society. At this time, her influences and art remained conservative.
Achievements: During a brief return to Paris in 1923, Tarsila was exposed to Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism. European artists in general had developed a great interest in African and primitive cultures for inspiration. This led Tarsila to utilize her own country’s indigenous forms while incorporating the modern styles she had studied. While in Paris at this time, she painted one of her most famous works, A Negra (1923). The principal subject matter of the painting is a large negroid female figure with a single prominent breast. Tarsila stylized the figure and flattened the space, filling in the background with geometric forms.
Oswalde de Andrade, who had become her traveling companion, accompanied her throughout Europe. Upon returning to Brazil at the end of 1923,Tarsila and Andrade then traveled throughout Brazil to explore the variety of indigenous culture, and to find inspiration for their nationalistic art. During this period, Tarsila made drawings of the various places they visited which became the basis for many of her upcoming paintings. She also illustrated the poetry that Andrade wrote during their travels, including his pivotal book of poems entitled Pau Prasil, published in 1924. In the manifesto of the same name, Andrade emphasized that Brazilian culture was a product of importing European culture and called artists to create works that were uniquely Brazilian in order to “export” Brazilian culture, much like the wood of the Brazil tree had become an important export to the rest of the world. In addition, he challenged artists to use a modernist approach in their art, a goal they had strived for during the Semana de Arte Moderna.
While in Paris, she was exposed to surrealism and after returning to Brazil, Tarsila began a new period of painting where she departed from urban landscapes and scenery, and began incorporating surrealist style into her nationalistic art. This shift also coincided with a larger artistic movement in São Paulo and other parts of Brazil which focused on celebrating Brazil as the country of the big snake. Building on the ideas of the earlier Pau-Brasil movement, artists strove to appropriate European styles and influences in order to develop modes and techniques that were uniquely theirs and Brazilian.