- Brazil through French Eyes: A Nineteenth-Century Artist in the Tropics by Ana Lucia Araujo
Ana Lucia Araujo presents the travel writings of Frenchman François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882), adding a unique dimension to Europe's fascination with the exotic. Biard's Deux années au Brésil broke away from earlier patterns in the French artistic tradition by using humor and misadventure to shed light on the peculiarities of what he considered to be a backward country and people. His woodcut illustrations display racial thinking and a sardonic view of the tropics, which inspired Araujo to examine issues of orientalism, race, and progress in the nineteenth century. Biard as writer and adventurer, and as the central character of his Brazilian travels, constructed a "tropical romanticism" that aimed to defy rationalism and the scientific organization of nature, according to the author. Araujo's analysis of Biard's work contributes to the study of comparative travel writing and brings to light the caricaturist nature of Biard's travelogue, transforming tropical romanticism into something more than idealism.
The French Artistic Mission in Brazil in 1816 was tied to French and Brazilian royal relations that remained close enough to bring Biard to Brazil in 1858. The most famous works in the exchange between France and Brazil are the drawings of Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), but other traveling artists, such as the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), also left significant bodies of work that influenced Biard. In other words, as the author contends, Biard's work exists in dialectical relationship to his predecessors. Araujo juxtaposes images and themes that illustrate [End Page 428] rupture and continuity between artists, especially vis-à-vis Debret. Biard is unique in the way he revealed ambivalence by providing humorous criticism of Brazilian slave and monarchical society, even as he adapted rapidly to the local slavocratic mentality.
The consul Théodore Taunay, himself the son of an artist from the French Artistic Mission earlier in the century, provided Biard with patronage in Brazil. In Rio, Biard mingled with aristocracy and royalty, living in the capital for only a short period of time since his main interest was to illustrate the rainforest. He considered elite Brazilians living in the capital city to be ridiculous imitators of European culture. Odd customs such as gentleman dressing in black in tropical heat or regularly expecting to be referred to as "doctor" were motives for satirical commentary and imagery that targeted not only blacks. Still, Biard did not make negative comments about Brazilian royalty or condemn slavery, suggesting instead the idea that Brazilian slavery was benign compared to elsewhere in the Americas.
Biard was not interested in depicting urban life, and after a short stay in Rio he journeyed into the jungle. Araujo's last two chapters expand on his stay there as artist-adventurer and are fine contributions to the study of representations of the Brazilian rainforest. Biard's intention remained the same: to provide criticism through satirical observation, not to inform readers about his surroundings. The rainforest, an antagonistic force, provided for Biard a stage on which he was the protagonist. His observations do not convey the sense of a virgin forest but rather conflicts between himself and the other "actors." By focusing on this conflict, Araujo brings to the surface a dynamic narrative about a painter's travel experience that adds a significant layer to the study of representation.
The last chapter, titled "Evil Natives," is where Araujo's ideas about racial thinking and tropical romanticism come together most effectively. The previous chapter, focusing on the natural world of the rainforest, conveys a place that is grand, mysterious, magical, and pristine, even if antagonistic. Descriptions of dense forest, giant trees, and exotic plant life resonate with the romanticism that had fascinated artists and earlier travelers to Brazil. Less romantic, however, are Biard's depictions of the indigenous people who lived in such a place. Biard particularly noted excessive alcohol consumption among...