Jean-Baptiste Debret’s Biography and Works

Jean-Baptiste Debret (b. 1768; died 1848), French painter. Under the leadership of Joachim Lebreton (1760-1819), secretary of the fine arts class at the French Institute, Debret left his country in 1816 and went to Rio de Janeiro with the French group known as the French Artistic Mission, which had been invited by the Portuguese government.

The arrival of Mary Leopoldine from Habsburg-Lorraine (Habsburg Lorraine) or Austria (1797-1826) to Rio de Janeiro in 1817, to marry Emperor Peter I of Brazil The two fiances are represented accompanied by King Joao VI of Portugal (John VI known as the Cle
The arrival of Maria Leopoldina of Habsburg-Lorraine (Habsburg Lorraine) or Austria (1797-1826) in Rio de Janeiro in 1817 to marry Emperor Pedro I of Brazil The two bride and groom are depicted accompanied by King João VI of Portugal (João VI known as the Clever King).

The group was made up of Nicolas Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), a landscape painter; his brother, Auguste Marie Taunay (1768-1824), a sculptor; Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean De Montigny (1776-1850), an architect; Charles S. Pradier (1768-1848), an engraver; Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858), a composer; and François Ovide, a specialist in mechanics.

Although Debret was classified as a history painter, his first works in Brazil were portraits of the royal family, decorative paintings for public festivals and sets for the Teatro Real São João in Rio de Janeiro.

It took ten years for the Brazilian Academy of Fine Arts to be created, where the members of the French group were to teach. In the meantime, Debret taught his students in a private home.

Debret’s best-known work is a series of drawings depicting Brazilian life and culture, published in three volumes in 1834 and 1839 under the title Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil.

The drawings and accompanying explanatory texts can be considered the most striking documents of Brazilian daily life in the first decades of the 19th century.

Following what he calls a “logical order”, Debret begins his book with descriptions of Indians belonging to various tribes.

Although he didn’t travel outside Rio de Janeiro, several travellers gave him the information he needed to depict the indigenous way of life in the interior.

No one better than Debret portrayed the life of slaves in Rio de Janeiro, and his drawings shocked the members of the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute because of their realism.

As a history painter, Debret also portrayed historical events from the late colonial period:

    • the landing of Her Royal Highness Princess Leopoldina in Rio de Janeiro
    • the coronation of King João VI, the baptism of Princess Maria da Glória
    • The oath to the Constitution and the coronation of Pedro I as Emperor of Brazil

Video on the Biography and Works of Jean-Baptiste Debret

Painter of Napoleon’s Court

In 1806, Debret began his works dedicated to the glory of Napoleon, commissioned by Vivant-Denon, director of museums.

His works include: Napoleon Honours Unfortunate Courage (1806), a canvas measuring 3.90m x 6.21m – which received an honourable mention from the Institut de France, “Napoleon Decorates the Grenadier Lazareff at Tilsitt” (1807) and “Napoleon Addresses the Bavarian Troops” (1810). 

In 1814, with the fall of Napoleon, Debret lost his main financial backer.

Shortly afterwards, Debret received two offers, one from Tsar Alexander I, who invited him to work in St Petersburg, and the other from Lebreton, who asked him to join the French artistic mission to Brazil, as requested by Prince Regent João.

Determined to take part in the French mission, Debret embarked for Brazil.

French Artistic Mission to Brazil

French Artistic Mission to Brazil, forerunner of the Brazilian Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1808, fleeing the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese emperor Dom João VI (1767-1826) moved the court from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro.

With the arrival of the Portuguese court in Brazil, the emperor hired a group of French artists to organise an art academy in Rio de Janeiro, along the lines of the French Academy.

Jean-Baptiste Debret - Portrait of John VI of Portugal
Jean-Baptiste Debret – Portrait of John VI of Portugal

The French painters, sculptors, architects, musicians and engineers of the French Artistic Mission arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1816.

The original group included painter Jacques Lebreton (1760-1819), landscape artist Nicolas Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), sculptor Auguste Marie Taunay (1768-1824), historian Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), architect Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean De Montigny (1776-1850), engraver Charles Simon Pradier (1786-1848) and composer Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858).

The aim was to create what King João VI called the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts.

The Royal School would elevate Brazil, then the seat of the Portuguese Empire, and imbue it with European culture, particularly French.

Trained at the French Academy, the artists implemented French-inspired artistic and pedagogical models. They replaced the isolated attempts by Jesuit priests in the colonial period to encourage artistic teaching.

They replaced the religious baroque styles of the colony with French secular neoclassicism, an aesthetic orientation that lasted for much of the First and Second Empires.

This cultural transformation corresponded to the political and social changes that accompanied the arrival of the royal family in Brazil: the opening of the ports to world trade, the lifting of limitations on industrial production in the colony, the establishment of military academies, the creation of a national library and the introduction of the printing press.

Financial and political turmoil, coinciding with the personal crises of some of the artists, delayed the formal opening of the Royal School until 1820.

The school went through several name changes until 1824, when it was changed to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, a name it kept until the fall of the Second Empire in 1889.

The original artists from the mission served as mentors for the first generation of Brazilian artists with academic training. Jean-Baptiste Debret chronicled the events of the colony with his portraits of the royal family and coronation paintings.

His pupils, Simplicio Rodrigues de Sá, Manoel de Araujo Pôrto Alegre and José Correia de Lima, continued his aesthetic influences.

The legacy was left behind after De-bret returned to France in 1820.

Dom Pedro I appointed Simplicio de Sá court painter and Pôrto Alegre became the Academy’s fifth director in 1854.

Court painter to Dom João VI

Debret later became the official painter of the Empire. He produced portraits of the Royal Family and, for many years, was the set designer for the Royal Theatre of São João.

He painted historical pictures and engravings showing the customs and human types of Rio de Janeiro at the time.

Painter to the Court of Dom Pedro I

Jean-Baptiste Debret - Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, 1816
Jean-Baptiste Debret – Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, 1816

In 1821, when Dom João VI returned to Portugal, Debret began to serve Dom Pedro I, from whom he received the Commendation of the Order of Christ. In 1829 and 1830, the first two art exhibitions were held in Brazil.

In 1831, with the abdication of Dom Pedro I, Debret returned to France after 15 years in Brazil, taking Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre with him to study in Paris.

The 350 originals of Debret’s engravings executed in Brazil are kept at the Castro Maia Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. The oil paintings are in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro;

Picturesque and Historical Journey to Brazil

In 1834, 1835 and 1839, he published the three-volume “Picturesque and Historical Journey to Brazil”. The first volume portrays indigenous culture, the second the relationship between whites and slaves.

In the third and final volume, Debret focuses on the court and popular traditions, all accompanied by explanatory texts;

Gallery with the works of Jean-Baptiste Debret

Biografia e as Obras de Jean-Baptiste Debret

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