A Brief History of Portuguese Art

Portuguese painting first came to prominence in the 15th century. In 1428, when Jan van Eyck visited Portugal for the marriage of King João I’s daughter Isabella to Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, it marked the beginning of a long and close relationship with Flanders, which greatly influenced Portuguese painting.

From the Flemish, Portuguese artists acquired not only the skills of technique and composition but also two traditions of painting which were to grow in importance: religious painting and portraiture.

These two trends are clearly apparent in the masterpiece of Portuguese 15th-century art, namely the Panels of St Vincent by Nuno Gonçalves, on display at Lisbon’s Ancient Art Museum (indicated on the map below). He was appointed court painter to King Afonso V in 1450 and painted the panels between 1458 and 1464.

A school of painting called the Northern School was established around the height of Manueline architecture in the 16th century. A notable painter of this style, which employed naturalism and detailed background landscapes, was Vasco Fernandes, also known as ‘Grão Vasco’.

Around the same time there was another group known as the Lisbon School which produced several top-grade painters, including Jorge Afonso, Cristovão de Figueiredo, Garcio Fernandes and Gregório Lopes, one of the best-known artists of the late 16th century.

One of the most acclaimed painters in Portuguese history was Amadeo de Souza Cardoso (1887-1918), some of whose works can be seen in the northern town of Amarante.

Portuguese sculpture has also grown in importance over the last 500 years. During the first part of the 16th century, the leading Renaissance sculptors in Portugal were immigrant French masters working mainly in marble and alabaster.

The most famous 18th century Portuguese sculptor is Joaquim Machado de Castro (1731-1822), who came from Coimbra, where the city’s principal museum is named after him. He was trained by José de Almeida and worked under the Italian sculptor Alessandri Giusti (1715-99), who set up a school in Mafra. Machado de Castro’s reputation is based on his splendid bronze equestrian statue of Dom José, with attendant figures, which he executed for Praça do Comércio in Lisbon.

Worthy examples of Portuguese Neo-classical sculpture can be seen at the royal palaces of Queluz and Ajuda, on the outskirts of the capital. Ajuda Palace was the main centre of Portuguese artistic, architectural and decorative activity during the first quarter of the 19th century.

Portuguese art

Carved woodwork, principally in church interiors, was one of the most popular and widespread of all forms of artistic expression throughout the Iberian Peninsular from the 15th to the end of the 18th century. Late Gothic woodcarving is well represented in Coimbra’s Sé Velha cathedral, while the reliquary chapel in the monastery of Alcobaça exemplifies the early Baroque style in Portugal.

Named after King João V, who reigned in Portugal from 1706-50, the Joanine style of carved woodwork best depicted by the retables of the high altars of Porto and Viseu cathedrals, and splendid examples of late Baroque and Rococo reredoses are to be seen at Tibães (1757-60) and Falperra (1763), both near Braga in northern Portugal.

Patterned tiles known locally as azulejos have been used in numerous ways in Portugal, on the façades of both the smallest and largest buildings, often with a staggering richness of colour and complexity. In fact, the entire insides of many churches are covered with beautifully painted azulejo glazed tiles.

The word azulejo comes from the Arabic azuleich, which means flat, smooth, shiny blue stone, and (among other theories) the art is said to have originated among the Assyrians in the times before Jesus Christ. The Persians subsequently adopted the technique before teaching it to the Arabs, who brought it to Europe through the Moors. They founded a factory in Seville where the first tiles were made in geometric patterns.

During the 17th century, Portugal adopted its own style of tile painting after sixty years of painful Spanish rule. Then the extensive destruction wrought by Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake provided a rich source of work for many tile painters who were commissioned by nobles to restore their damaged homes or to decorate new ones, many examples of which can still be seen in the city’s streets today.

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