Watercolors of Brazil: Jean Baptiste Debret's work

Vera Beatriz Siqueira

SIQUEIRA, Vera Beatriz. Watercolors of Brazil: Jean Baptiste Debret's work. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. II, Issue 1, jan. 2007. Acessible in: <http://www.dezenovevinte.net/artistas/debret_02_en.htm>. [Português]

*     *     *

The transfer of the Portuguese Court to Rio de Janeiro, in 1808, and the consequent opening of the ports to friendly nations turn the old colonial city into a destination for several artistic, diplomatic and scientific missions. Amongst them are the French Artistic Mission1, bringing together men of letters, architects, sculptors, landscape painters and historical painters, recorders, with a twofold civilizatory mission: to lend the city a face worthy of the new capital of the overseas Kingdom and to found there an Academy of Fine Arts. But the transfer of Portuguese courtiers and French artistes to Rio always seems to be marked by the negative signal of a reality that discourages efforts designed to establish a civilization.

Of a rigid neo-classical background - a pupil of Jacques Louis David and historical painter requisitioned by Napoleon -, Debret finds in Brazil the promise of a solution to his personal and professional crisis (having lost a son, separated from his wife, he finds himself without professional alternatives after the end of the Napoleonic period). As soon as his ship touches land in Rio de Janeiro, he still realizes the distance between the ethical and aesthetic values of his artistic practice and the reality of the colonial city in which he was to settle down and teach the fine arts of historical painting.

In a watercolor done in the year of his arrival in Brazil, Debret na pensão (Debret in the boarding house), the artiste qualifies this dilemma. The irony comes across in the opposition between the illustrations of the painter sitting down at the table and the slave in the background, carrying a tray. The slave's presence is ambiguous. He is presented as a point of convergence of the lines that form the perspective of the floor and the roof of the inn. Upon hiding the point of escape, he transforms the wall to his back into a more or less diffuse background and draws our glance to the central scene: the artiste sitting down at the table. However, the structuring functions of the slave's illustration can appear only in a skeptical fashion, obscured by the shade of the watercolor.

The doubt as to the slave's presence echoes with the doubt as to the artiste's work itself. Just like the mirror trick in Dutch works, the slave forces the duplication of the vision, the adoption of that other point of view, from behind, as a counterpoint to our own frontal vision. It is as if the slave looked at the artiste and at us seeing Debret's illustration, materializing the incongruity of the ethical discourse on the artistic work in a slavocrat society. At the same time, however, it is his presence that enables the operation of the closed perspective of the inn.

The skepticism as to the real possibilities of the artiste performing in that new world appears as a guarantee of the distance necessary to exercise his work. If the traveler's narrative drive can be accomplished in the particular data of that unknown universe, then its foundation and consistency elude him. The colonial city is not just uncultured, what would indeed be an asset for the French artistes' missionary work. It is totally new; it doesn't even provide the material or social basis to carry out the civilizatory mission.

Only when he returns to France and publishes the narrative of his journey does Debret recover the heroic sense of the mission:

Driven by the same zeal and the enthusiasm of the travelling wise men who are no longer afraid now of braving the vicissitudes of a long and yet, very often, dangerous voyage, we left France, our common homeland, to go and study a nature totally unknown to us, and to imprint, in that new world, the profound and useful marks, I do hope, of the presence of French artistes.2

To leave France, to arrive in the new world, to return to one's homeland - in that trajectory, the travelling artiste finds his raison d'être. In his Brazilian watercolors Debret takes up once again the counterpoint announced in that small space of his book between the no longer - “no longer afraid” - and the yet- a long and yet dangerous voyage”. Debret's artistic relevance, that which makes him new on the European cultural scenario, is suddenly seen as being old in the face of this totally new, natural and social situation of Brazil.

His watercolors speak to us of the impossibility of moving from the old to the new, of establishing a relationship of continuity between those different worlds and, consequently, of creating a lasting impression about that adverse reality. Hard to grasp, it falls to Debret to convert the Brazilian reality into private elements, into partial views, into anonymous and ill-treated characters, in exotic and insignificant detail. The artiste himself, in his book Viagem pitoresca e histórica ao Brasil, presents his work as a “collection”3, the end of which deals with his return to France and the publication of his memoirs.

The result of years of study in a distant land, its warm welcome emerges as the only and fragile compensation for the sorrow of not re-encountering some of his old masters and colleagues, of whose “immortal works remain to be admired, glorious but very melancholic consolation, if consolation there is for eternal separation”.4 In the work of the artiste committed to the documental recording of a strange reality, the attention paid to detail suggests, just once, the interest for the diversity of the world and the zeal in homogenizing it through the civilizatory practice.

Debret, in the years he spent in Brazil, strives to record the old habits, quickly modified by the conceited contact with the European courtiers' cosmopolitanism. His long stay enabled him to witness the change in clothes, footwear, daily habits, in construction, and even in the political situation, with the shift from the Colony to the independent Empire in 1822. In that year precisely Debret writes to his brother François about the decision to publish his travel memoirs after his return to Europe.

In the first watercolors displaying the city of Rio, generally on a miniaturized scale, the emphasis again falls on the descriptive details of the house, of the bedroom and the atelier in which the artiste settles. Sent to his brother, those pictures present above all the new daily lifestyle of the Frenchman in the tropics. As of 1822, however, he begins to compose complete scenes, besides doing hundreds of studies, which later on will help prepare the lithographs of his travel album. Now, it is necessary to use one's memory to reconstitute habits lost or fallen into disuse. In the famous representations of the Jantar brasileiro (Brazilian Dinner), the Interior de uma habitação de ciganos (Interior of a gypsy home) or the countless travelling sales people, there is more than the fear of the speed at which the denizens of the city took pains in adopting European habits and style. There is indeed the manifest desire for a narrative ordering of those mnemonic images.

The reminiscence, however, is not just good enough for the revival of the Brazilian past. It is also useful in bringing him once again closer to France, giving new meaning to his civilizatory practice. As the same city that adheres shamelessly to new fashions but withstands civic sense and responsibility, it is seen as being impervious to urbanity itself. Unable to civilize his people, Debret not only takes on the task of documenting his travels, as his specific temporality: travelling is a kind of hiatus of time, an interval between departing and returning, charged with collecting and recording data.

The watercolor of 1827, Um cientista em seu gabinete (A scientist in his study) reflects upon that question. Books, the globe, stuffed birds, notebooks, glass shelves can scarcely erase the instability of the network that sustains a scientist in a bathrobe and slippers with chairs and benches as a precarious support for recording his knowledge. It is worth noting that, in that watercolor, there are many of the characteristic elements of Kunstkammern or Cabinet of Curiosities, which since the 16th century not only served as a model for collections, but also for scientific and artistic practice.

In the scientist's cabinet there is, however, a diverse order of the taxonomic strategy, which presides over those collections of curiosities of the new world. After 10 years of coexistence with a colonial society, Debret speaks about a non-ordering physical presence, of an instability that defies reason itself. The proximity of the back of the room, the shut door, the dim light that comes in through the window on the left, lend form to that discomfort. The scientist is the interface between the arrangement of the objects of his occupation and the chaotic dispersion of his annotations on the floor.

Different to other travelers, who just stay for a few months or years in Brazil, Debret spends 15 years on the tropical soil. In that space of time, the promise of a new life becomes a threat to his cultural values in order to, then, recover the character of promise of the decision to convert it into a discourse - promise of recognition amongst peers, melancholic comfort for staying away from one's homeland. In that movement, he needs to transform his study into memory, into a mnemonic calculation of time spent, but also of the time that is lacking.

The images created by Debret, therefore, are not just meant for recording a life gone by, but also for the future, for the development of European art. In that regard, when structuring his memoirs, he places emphasis on duration as a phenomenon of memory, of that which since the very beginning is produced in the shape of what is absent, distant, disappeared. The very use of the watercolor - a technique which, at the time was seen as preparatory - and the more or less peaceful acceptance of its fluidity and imprecision demonstrate that the artiste conceived that set of works as something strange in his career. A strangeness that complements the difficulty with deciphering that New World and requires identification from images to vestiges, fragments of an existence, which abandons the empirical reality of the presence in order to be transmuted into a distant memory / memory of distance.

To write one's memoirs, to gather and select the watercolors, to transpose them to the lithograph technique, to order them subject wise, calls for a new direction embraced by the skepticism of the missionary artiste. Medicine to Debret's disappointment with the real civilizatory possibilities, that especial collection of images is not just the recording of Brazilian life at the start of the 19th century. It is, above all, the constitution of a specific narrativity, capable of turning the Brazilian characters, places and habits into something new and old at the same time, original in its perennial need to be deciphered, but dead as a memory.

Paradoxically, the absence of discursive unity to merge those fragments, before alluding to the failure of Debret's classicist values, affirms them. For instead of endowing each part with autonomy, so as to refer us to the whole - what Wölfflin understood as one of the fundamental characteristics of the linear style  -, it calls for its autonomous value through the lack of correspondence to any totality. Perhaps this has been the great legacy Debret has left to Brazilian art and culture - to understand that it would not be possible to articulate in a whole old and new parts, of different sizes and shapes, unless each one of them was taken as a whole, was at the same time departure and return, blessing and curse.

In one of his studies, Debret shows a black woman sitting on a step, back to the wall. In tatters, barefoot, abandoned, she surrenders to the support of the wall. In that watercolor there is no past, no future. Neither scene nor action. In the fullness of that instant, the black woman is there, resting. There is a certain degree of pathetic grandeur in that rest; you can even notice the vestiges of sensuality in the meeting of the woman with the stones and the ever damp whitewash. Before and after there is pain, the brutality of a pro-slavery social order. It is there that the violence of abandonment and desolation lie, but also the postponement of pain, the present serenity, the only property of the slaves doomed to an existence whose actions are not always free.

It is about that city without a civic sense, whose beauty seems to emerge from a likelihood restricted and deprived, that Debret speaks to us. To snatch it from those scarce moments, from the intimacy of a private existence, calls for the artiste's sensitive look and skeptical posture alike. In his watercolors, the existence of the beautiful comes from the weak, from the distance that memory can only bridge as a vestige. There is no - as some Brazilian scholars would like - traveler's charm to go with the gentle climate, in the natural swing of habits, with the lush nature. There is obviously a renewed skepticism. From the objective standpoint, there is only the understanding of the possibility of a superficial contact of the New World with the European civilization, manifest in the luxury of the vestments, in the brilliance of the honorary orders, which help lend form, and in the particular interest of the Emperor for the development of the arts and sciences. From the subjective point of view, it does not allow any conversion to the New, it sustains the estrangement, the sensation of never having really arrived at all in Brazil.

Therefore, although most of the analyses on Jean Baptiste Debret's work tend to emphasize their documental character and their relevance to the knowledge of daily life in Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century, I take the contrary point of view. This work does not offer any set of empirical and verifiable data. It rather offers a collection of images, whose significance does not indicate its capacity to decipher enigmas, to clarify experiences, but instead to keep the country as an enigma, something to be constantly questioned.

1 Headed by the writer Joachim Lebreton, the French Artistic Mission arrived in Brazil on March 26th 1816. The artistes that made it up were Nicolas Antoine Taunay (landscape painter), Auguste Marie Taunay (sculptor), Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean de Montigny (architect), Charles Simon Pradier (recorder) and Jean Baptiste Debret (history painter). Later on sculptor Marc Ferrez and engraver and sculptor Zephirin Ferrez arrived.

2 Jean Baptiste Debret, Introduction to the Viagem pitoresca e histórica ao Brasil, t.1. São Paulo: EDUSP, 1978, p.23.

3 Debret repeatedly defines his work as a collection: “I had at my disposal all the documents on the customs and habits of the new country I inhabited and that constituted the starting point of my collection”; “I had the opportunity to constantly maintain, through my students, direct relationships with the most interesting regions in Brazil, relationships that enabled me to obtain an abundance of documents necessary to complement my already incipient collection”; “Chance thus led me to start, at the heart of a civilized capital, that particular collection of savages”; “That memory is a collection of drawings especially on the vegetation and the character of the virgin forests of Brazil.” In: Viagem pitoresca e histórica do Brasil, Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia: São Paulo: EDUSP, 1978, pp. 27 and 347.

4 Ib. p.347