Studies celebrating the revival of art after a major disaster

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Portuguese artist Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho (1729-1810) was not only a painter of distinction, but also a draughtsman, and his drawings show how he helped rebuild Portugal’s artistic heritage after one of its greatest great catastrophes, the earthquake of 1755.

An exhibit of 17 of his drawings is now on display at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal. The drawings in this exhibition are studies for his work on church ceilings and altarpieces, which testify to the painter’s unique style.

Reconstructing an artistic landscape

With an estimated magnitude of 8.5 on the Richter scale, an earthquake occurred approximately 120 miles off the coast of Portugal on All Saints Day, November 1, 1755. The seismic event almost completely destroyed Lisbon and its surroundings. More than 90% of the buildings collapsed, were burned by fires or flooded by the tsunami that followed.

Ceiling painting of the Annunciation, 1784, by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho inside the Church of the Italians (Our Lady of Loreto) in Lisbon, Portugal. (Andreas Manessinger/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The disaster demolished public buildings, monuments, churches and palaces; Lisbon had to be almost completely rebuilt. The earthquake damaged Lisbon Cathedral, basilicas and major churches. Reconstruction began almost immediately.

Carvalho was Lisbon’s most productive painter after the great earthquake. He aided in reconstruction by completing paintings in new structures, including palaces, churches, and schools. He also helped rebuild the capital of Portugal through his murals.

Notoriously hardworking, skillful and energetic, Carvalho painted many altarpieces and church ceilings, and his drawings show his work in great detail.

Expressive designs

The painter’s style of sketching stands out from other painters of his time, as it is simple yet highly expressive in character: they are visually compelling in their theatrical quality and style. Carvalho’s studies are very simple and uniform, but full of detail, precision and liveliness.

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“Allegory of the Royal Wedding” by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho. Ink wash underlined in sepia ink on folded paper. Courtesy of National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal. (Public domain)

His dramatic characters produce a compelling narrative, much like a play, and that storytelling makes his work stand out. Moreover, his well-defined figures are full of expression, which is rare for late Baroque and sets it apart from its contemporaries.

These qualities and his high technical skills greatly increased his popularity during his career and allowed him to obtain multiple commissions.

His ink studies show how his personal style creates great visual impact, even though he followed traditional themes and allegorical figures from the later Baroque period. For example, he accentuates the theatrical gestures in his characters, which increases the overall dynamism and gives his compositions a sense of grandeur.

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Detail of sketched figure from ‘Allegory of the Royal Wedding’ by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho. Courtesy of National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal. (Public domain)

The artist has used brown ink and India ink washes, with pen outlines. His technique consisted of drawing the outlines of a figure with a pen and brown ink, then applying different washes with different levels of dilution either in the same brown shade or in the gray tones of India inks. This technique creates shadows, lights, volume and definition.

His designs are mainly religious and allegorical, but there are also mythological and political subjects. In the exhibition there are studies for church ceilings based on religious scenes such as the adoration of the mystical lamb, the adoration of the Magi, the allegory of the Immaculate Conception. and the marriage of Saint Catherine.

There are also allegorical figures of Wisdom with the Portuguese royal coat of arms, referring to the services rendered by the Dukes of Lafões; sciences and virtues for the ceiling of the library of the Academy of Sciences; as well as the marriage of Queen D. Maria I and King D. Pedro III of Portugal. There are also mythological drawings, such as “Apollo and the Muses” and “The Fall of Phaeton”.

To this day, it is not known what the main purpose of his drawings was. They could have been transfer grids for his paintings, but that was a rare practice for him. They could also have been a way to keep an inventory of his work after the large formats were completed. More likely, these were drafts, as a means of showing his work to religious organizations or members of brotherhoods who commissioned the work for approval.

Typical Portuguese painter

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Interior of Lisbon Cathedral with the painting “Descent from Pentecost”, 1780, by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho. Left: (Vitor Oliveira/CC BY-SA 2.0), Right: (Public domain)

This late Baroque painter was the disciple and collaborator of the famous Portuguese painters André Gonçalves and the ornamental painter João Mesquita. Carvalho trained in Portugal, which was unusual for those times. He dreamed of traveling to Italy but never did. However, his work remains based on Italian models, probably inspired by engravings.

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‘Our Lady of Relief and King Joseph’, 1785, by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho in the Memory Church in Lisbon. Left: (Vitor Oliveira/CC BY-SA 2.0), Right: (PD-US))

His oil paintings, tempera and frescoes can be found in dozens of churches and palaces in Portugal, such as the churches of Bemposta, Loreto, Mártires, Mercês, Sacramento, Santos Reis (Campo Grande) and in the Cathedral of Lisbon , the Se. The painter also contributed to the artistic and architectural heritage of Lisbon by painting the monuments of Lisbon.

He is best known for altar screens, an often elaborately decorated partition separating the nave from the chancel in a church. Carvalho’s screens were unique in that they looked more like fabric than others, which were made of wood. Its altar screens could be moved, much like a theater curtain, to display a sacred sculpture or item in a service. This way of exhibiting a work of religious art gives a theatrical dynamism to the Portuguese altarpieces.

Artistic heritage

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The Basilica of Our Lady of the Martyrs was rebuilt and completed in 1784, 29 years after the earthquake. The incredible ceiling frescoes were painted by Pedro Alexandro de Carvalho. (Alegna13,/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carvalho created a legacy through his dynamic and expressive compositions as well as teaching the next generation of artists. He taught at some of Lisbon’s early academies, and his work was celebrated by those responsible for the Lisbon Academy of Fine Arts throughout the 19th century.

Historians have noted that “[h]We greatly contributed to the decoration of the churches rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755 and can be considered the last great Baroque painter in Portugal.

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Detail of the ceiling fresco by Pedro Alexandro de Carvalho at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Martyrs, Lisbon. (Alejandro/CC BY 2.0)

At the time he was working, Carvalho stood out from his contemporaries by the freedom he took in his compositions, his unique style, his dynamism and his structure. Art historians have noted that he never received the critical recognition deserved for an artist of his rank. This exhibition at the National Antique Art Museum aims to celebrate his work and his legacy.

Carvalho’s drawings are on display until July 3, 2022 at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

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