"If I could start my life over, I would be a sailor again," Pancetti reflected toward the end of his career, reminiscing about his long tenure with the Brazilian Navy and the exhilaration of life on the high seas. A painter of intensely lyrical and expansive seascapes, Pancetti ranks among Brazil's great modern artists, known for his classic images of the marine atmosphere along the coastline from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia. His paintings are saturated with the chromatic exuberance and luminosity of the beach and above all the sea, a frequent and familiar sanctum throughout the artist's storied, tumultuous life. Pancetti struggled through an unhappy and poverty-stricken adolescence, marked by an alcoholic father and a difficult spell with relatives in Italy, but he found a vocation on the water, enlisting first with Italy and then as a seaman in the Brazilian Navy in 1922. "Someone on board my first ship found out that I was a good painter," he recorded in his diary, alluding to a brief stint as a house painter. "When the captain heard of it, he asked me to paint his cabin and I took such great care in doing it that afterwards the authorities began to treat me with special consideration....I cannot explain how one day I felt like painting what my eyes saw in the mad rush of the sea."
Following his retirement from the Navy, Pancetti settled in Bahia in 1950, a move that kindled the poignant intensity and poetics that characterize his late works. He embraced the city of Salvador, painting its famed beaches Ondina, Itapuã, Mar Grande, and Lagoa de Abaeté in brilliant, geometric swaths of color. The present work describes the serpentine shape of the Abaeté Lagoon, contrasting its famed white sand dunes against the gleaming emerald and yellow-green waters. Local laundrywomen used to bring their wash to the lagoon's shores, and Pancetti illustrates them at work, their brightly colored garments rendered in a schematic pattern projecting diagonally across the canvas. Yet Pancetti's essential and enduring subject remains the sea, captured here in a moment of perfect stillness, its tonal waters calmly reflecting the warm, ambient light. The high horizon line foregrounds the water, its chromatic richness spelled out in horizontal tranches that structure the image, building the picture surface through layers of pure, vibrant color.
"Like a ship's deck, Pancetti's painting is tanned by salt and sunlight," critic Frederico Morais has remarked. "No trace of rust. Honest, clean, economical, direct, austere, almost barren, even when color expands and the gesture harbors a flow of emotion. Nothing is superfluous, nothing is wasted." That succinct clarity of expression and sentiment is beautifully distilled in the present Abaeté, in which the simple geometries of the horizon and the beach define a constructive rhythm that spreads energetically across the canvas. Almost abstract in feeling, Pancetti's color permeates the still space of the painting, the smooth brushstrokes inflecting the image with a suggestive permanence and eternity. Painted in the last year of his life, as a long battle with tuberculosis took its toll, Abaeté imparts a contemplative and nostalgic cast to Pancetti's quintessential subject, the sea and sands of his beloved Brazilian shore.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) José Pancetti, quoted in Max Perlingeiro, "Introduction," José Pancetti, 1902-1958: marinheiro, pintor e poeta (São Paulo: Edições Pinakotheke, 2003), 109.
2) Pancetti, quoted in José Roberto Teixeira Leite, "How to Love Pancetti," José Pancetti, 1902-1958, 156.
3) Frederico Morais, quoted in Denise Mattar, "Pancetti - The Lone Sailor," Pancetti, o marinheiro só (Salvador: Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, 2000), 155.