The works in this section can be classified as genre paintings; they depict figures engaged in ordinary work or leisure activities or in indoors spaces. Although these paintings could be read in relation to classical European art history, specifically Dutch interior paintings, we brought them together here because they include references to the artists’ biographies as well as a sense of belonging within larger social groups.
The first six paintings are by three artists from the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean: Horace Pippin, Heitor dos Prazeres, and Micius Stéphane, working respectively in the United States, Brazil, and Haiti. These artists share a working-class background as well as a refined narrative vein in their compositions. Exhibited alongside one another for the first time, these artists form a triad of black modern painters who are considered key figures within their contexts.
The title of this section refers to both interior/exterior scenes and the status conferred to the artists whose contributions to art history have been overlooked, leading to the problematic use of the term “outsider” in reference to their work.
This charming, untitled image by Micius Stéphane is one of several canvases that reflects the Bainet-born artist’s interest in photography. Indeed, photography as a practice had existed in Haiti for nearly a century before Stéphane took up the brush, joining DeWitt Peters’s Centre d’Art in 1948 after abandoning his earlier vocation as a shoemaker. Marilyn Houlberg notes how Creole elites first brought the medium to the Caribbean island almost immediately following the announcement of its invention in France in 1839.1 Soon after, photography studios were founded in Port-au-Prince and other major cities, where clients sought to commemorate important events such as births, baptisms, weddings, and confirmations. Such occasions are reflected in several portraits by Stéphane that follow traditional photo studio conventions: these include positioning his somewhat stiffly posed subjects at center as well as symmetrically framing them against backdrop curtains, potted plants, and other generic studio props.
In such images, Stéphane seems to simply translate photographic portrait techniques to the painted canvas, essentially substituting one medium for another. However, other works suggest a deeper interest by capturing the very act of photography within the composition. Such is the case with Sans titre (Le photographe), which zooms out to include not only the photographer and his sitters but also other spectators. At left, a group of ten snazzily dressed family members (note the women’s stylish shoes) stands waiting for the camera flash, their awkwardly frozen smiles belying studiedly casual gestures. At right, the photographer adjusts the lens on his tripod, while another figure (an assistant?) stands behind. In the foreground and outside the camera’s aim, two women sit on a green bench, waiting and watching as a naked baby and a dog play on the floor. Ignored by all with the exception of the distracted man in the red shirt, this crudely humorous detail is typical of Stéphane’s oeuvre, which frequently includes satirical jokes aimed toward the Haitian bourgeois class, who would have been the ones able to afford such family portraits. At the same time, by including this chaotic anecdote in the painting, Stéphane reveals what can take place beyond the confines of the camera frame, thereby exposing the limits and often presumed “truth” of photographic images.
The various groupings in Sans titre (Le photographe) unfold across the picture plane in a tripartite compositional division that echoes the architecture of the room, with its three wooden ceiling beams and curtained entries. This sense of balance helps to counter the dynamic exchange of glances shared among the groups, as well as the extreme proportional shifts between the figures, particularly that of the photographer compared to his sitters. A traditional indicator of status, such shifts in size are also characteristic of much of the modernist Haitian painting produced by Stéphane and his peers at the Centre d’Art. Yet, considering Stéphane’s photographic interests, such perspectival distortions perhaps also reflect a conscious emulation of camera techniques, such as the use of a fish-eye lens for capturing wide views.
— Susanna V. Temkin, Curator, El Museo del Barrio
- Marilyn Houlberg, “Haitian Studio Photography: A Hidden World of Images,” Aperture, no. 126 (Spring 1992): 58–65.
Silvia de Leon Chalreo
In Gente da Rua (People from the street), Silvia de Leon Chalreo depicts a crowd sharing a public space, partially framed by multifamily buildings. The differences in building constructions reflect class distinctions and the constant urbanization in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s: on the left the homes are reminiscent of colonial structures, a reminder of the past; on the right, a modernist poured-concrete structure, indicating the developmentalist policies in 1950s and early 1960s Brazil as well as the expansion of skyscrapers in urban environments.
In her artworks, Chalreo portrayed scenes of the urban periphery, which included working-class people — mostly Afro-Brazilians — performing labor or leisure activities, participating in popular festivals, or simply inhabiting public spaces. She often emphasized buildings and houses as the structuring elements of the composition, defining the spaces where people circulate. Additionally, she sometimes incorporated geometric grids to organize her scenes, reflecting an engagement with contemporary geometric abstraction trends in Brazil.
In Gente da Rua, the artist comments on family units by representing small groups on windows and balconies. The white building in the foreground, with two balconies and three adult figures on each balcony destabilizes the idea of a traditional family unit, a potential reference to unconventional families like the one she built for herself: she formed a family with two male friends, and they legally declared each other their heirs, reflecting a liberal stance in a largely conservative society.1
The frontal perspective evokes a hill, with people going either up or down, and the ground’s dark brown color suggests an unpaved street, both of which are characteristics of a favela. The shallow picture plane and the crowded space constraining the movement of people, symbolize the limited social mobility in a favela. The predominantly Black women in the street possibly reflect the artist’s awareness of the struggles derived from the intersection of race and gender. These figures are roughly painted, dotting the entire canvas with their colorful dresses, which create an animated rhythm in the composition. Their anonymity, however, might be a reflection of the artist’s own distance, as a white middle-class woman, from the realities of the favelas and from the experiences of Afro-Brazilians.
Gente da Rua is exemplary of Chalreo’s intentional engagement with the popular as an effort to paint the country she loved.2 Her vision of Brazil was comprised of dynamic multitudes that are diverse and joyful, while subject to the upheavals of rapid modernization, as symbolized by the mother with two children on the first floor of the modernist building: caught between the stability of a home and the uncertainty of the world outside.3
Tie Jojima, The Graduate Center, CUNY
- Chalreo lived with two friends for the rest of her life: João Ângelo Labanca and Pedro Weiss Xavier. Ana Lúcia Queiroz, Maracangalha: Vida e Obra de Sylvia de Leon Chalreo (São Paulo: Illumina, 2013), http://www.illumina.fot.br/pdf/silvia.pdf.
- The artist claimed that she solely painted what she “felt and loved: Brazil” (Queiroz, 6). This claim reflects the perception that so-called popular artists expressed a spontaneous — and thus more genuine — view of popular culture. Her statement, however, blurs her own position within the arts world. Although she exhibited in popular art exhibitions and critics labeled her a “popular” or “naïf” artist, she was part of official art circles and developed her writing career contributing art criticism to newspapers and magazines in Rio de Janeiro.
- I am grateful to my colleagues Horacio Ramos, Abigail Lapin Dardashti, and Sonja E. Gandert for their generosity in exchanging ideas and providing helpful insights about this artwork.
About the artists
Born in 1905 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Died in 1991 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Sylvia de Leon Chalreo was a journalist, writer, editor, and visual artist, whose trajectory is identified with feminism and communism in Brazil. She lived in Rio de Janeiro and Niterói, the city where she created the feminist Athénée Club in 1931. She was also the founder and editor of the magazine Esfera, de Letras, Artes e Ciências, published by the Brazilian Communist Party between 1938 and 1950. Silvia, as she used to sign her paintings, started exhibiting in the first modern division of the National Salon of Fine Arts, where she participated in all exhibitions between 1941 and 1950, except for 1942. Her compositions are almost always marked by miniature black female figures that occupy the canvases in street scenes, slums, and factories. She exhibited in several Brazilian cities and, in the mid-1960s, garnered some international recognition with a solo exhibition at Columbia University in New York (1967) and several "naive painting" group shows in Europe. Her work is part of public collections in Brazil, including the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes.
Born in 1914 in Avaré, Brazil.
Died in 1979 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Da Motta e Silva was the daughter of an Austrian mother and a Brazilian father of indigenous descent. At a very young age, she worked on a coffee plantation in her natal region in rural São Paulo State. In the 1930s, after recovering from tuberculosis, she migrated to the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Santa Teresa, where she ran a boarding house and worked as a cook and seamstress. During World War II, Santa Teresa had become a center for emigré artists and in that context Djanira — as she had come to be known — was encouraged by Romanian painter Emeric Marcier to pursue an artistic career. Her first exhibitions were in the early 1940s at the Salão Nacional de Belas. Between 1945 and 1947, she spent time in New York, where she presented a solo exhibition in the gallery of the New School for Social Research. At that time, her main themes were popular amusements and portraits.
Once back in Brazil, she delved into other popular themes such as artisanal labor, street festivities, Afro-Brazilian religions, and indigenous peoples, taking trips that inspired her repertoire, especially to the Northeast of the country. For several decades after her death, her work did not receive the critical attention it deserved. In 2019 da Motta e Silva was the subject of a retrospective, Djanira — Picturing Brazil, presented at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand and at Casa Roberto Marinho in Rio de Janeiro.
Born in 1893 in Limbé, Haiti.
Died in 1977 in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
Already in his fifties, Obin was inspired to start painting by his older brother Philomé Obin and joined the Centre d'Art in 1948. A practicing Mason, Obin followed the so-called Cap-Haitien style and depicted Masonic ceremonies as well as historic scenes and images of daily life in his paintings. His artworks are part of private and public collections, including the Folk Art Museum in New York; the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York; and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
Born in 1888 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Died in 1946 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
From an early age, Pippin liked to draw, but his family could not afford art materials. After holding various odd jobs — including working as a furniture packer, hotel porter, and iron molder — he enlisted in the US Army. During World War I, while stationed in France, his right hand was badly injured, which made it difficult for him to find a good job after the war. At age forty, Pippin began to draw and create burnt-wood art panels; later he experimented with oil on canvas. Created over just two decades, his artwork was lauded by artistic institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, which featured his work in the 1938 Masters of Popular Painting exhibition. Featuring both European and US artists, Pippin was the only African American artist represented in the exhibition. As the grandchild of slaves and the child of domestic laborers, Pippin often referenced the political disenfranchisement of his community in his artwork, which includes portraits of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist John Brown as well as other historical imagery related to segregation. Other subjects include scenes from his childhood, domestic interiors, memories from the war, and biblical themes. His artworks are part of the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Born in 1989 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Died in 1966 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro became the backdrop of dos Prazeres's paintings. His father was a carpenter and clarinetist in a military band, and his mother was a seamstress. Dos Prazeres grew up during the years following the abolishment of slavery in Brazil, a time that was marked by rural flight and vast transformations in labor and urban life. These transformations included the creation of the favelas, which pushed black populations into marginality, as well as the emergence of samba, a musical and cultural manifestation of the African diaspora. Dos Prazeres was an early samba composer, a carnival costume designer, and a practitioner of African-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. These experiences informed his vividly colored paintings and the movement and rhythm in the figures he represents. Dos Prazeres began painting in 1937, following the death of his wife. In 1951, he won the third prize for Brazilian artists at the first São Paulo Biennal. His paintings are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Shortly before his death, a documentary about dos Prazeres his art and life was directed by Antonio Carlos Fontoura.
Born in 1935 in Campo Belo, Brazil.
Died in 1974 in São Paulo, Brazil.
As a child, Maria Auxiliadora moved with her family to São Paulo, where she would remain until her untimely death at age thirty-nine. The eldest of eighteen children, Auxiliadora was born into a large family who were the descendants of slaves and who shared a talent for the arts, including sculpture, painting, poetry, and music. While still a child, financial needs forced her to leave school to find work as a housekeeper and seamstress, further developing the embroidery skills her mother had taught her. Throughout, she experimented with various artistic forms and eventually developed a distinct and highly textural technique that combined oil painting and relief elements and included industrial plastic-based adhesive and strands of her own hair. Many of her canvases reflect her own life and cultural experiences as an Afro-Brazilian woman and include self-portraits, Carnival and Candomblé scenes, quotidian images of her family, romantic representations of couples, and, tragically, her experience with cancer. Auxiliadora was briefly associated with other Afro-Brazilian artists and intellectuals in the town of Embú das Artes, but she primarily sold her work at outdoor markets, including the Praça da República in downtown São Paulo. In the 1970s, her art attracted the attention of various cultural figures, although she remained largely excluded from mainstream art practices and institutions. In 1981 Pietro Maria Bardi, the first director of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP), presented an exhibition of her work; some three decades later, MASP reconsidered her artistic contributions in the 2018 exhibition Maria Auxiliadora: Daily Life, Painting, and Resistance.
Born in 1912 in Bainet, Haiti.
Died in 1996 in Bainet, Haiti.
At a young age, Stéphane worked as a shoemaker and in his spare time began to paint. In his earlier paintings, he depicted colorful villages and landscapes using a mostly earth-toned palette. In 1948 he moved to Port-au-Prince to dedicate himself exclusively to painting. After training at the Centre d'Art, he started to include vivid colors in his artworks. Stéphane’s paintings are part of private and public collections, including the Musée d'Art Haitien du College Saint Pierre in Port-au-Prince, the Milwaukee Museum of Art in Wisconsin, and the Detroit Institute of Art in Michigan.
Born in 1896 in Lucca, Italy.
Died in 1988 in São Paulo, Brazil.
While still an infant, Volpi emigrated with his family to São Paulo, where he would live in the same working-class neighborhood of Cambuci for the rest of his life. He worked as a painter-decorator and held various craft-related jobs, including woodworking and bookbinding. Beginning in the 1930s, Volpi's early art consisted primarily of landscapes and figurative canvases. Over time, he gradually reduced his forms and palette to a schematized vocabulary of geometric motifs that nevertheless retain figurative references to architectural facades, religious and folkloric subjects, flags, sails, and masts. Although he never belonged to a movement, he associated with various modernist art groups, including the proletariat-oriented Santa Helena group during the 1930s, and, starting in the 1950s, exhibited with artists from the concrete art movement. As part of his artistic development, Volpi began to paint exclusively in tempera, mixing his own pigments and constructing his canvases, while working only in natural light. Today, he is considered among the most prominent twentieth-century Brazilian artists, and he has been the subject of numerous exhibitions since his first retrospective in 1957, curated by art critic Mário Pedrosa at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. Volpi won the Grand Prix at the second São Paulo Biennial in 1953, and his works are included in public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.