In the pampas or great plains of Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, cattle raising was a way of life. The men who worked them were called gauchos, from the Quechua huachu, which means orphan or vagabond. The name denoted their nomadic existence spent roaming with the herds, their life on horseback reflected in their clothing. The artist Juan Manuel Blanes obviously studied the specifics of costume carefully in his many paintings of the subject, including their wide hat, woolen poncho and long pleated trousers. He shows the figure in this picture standing with feet apart and at a slight angle, ready to move at a moment's notice. This position provides a glimpse of his footwear, colt-skin boots with open toes. They allowed direct physical contact with the horse's body and insured a unity between man and rider from which the gaucho's legendary skill as a horseman derived.
Born in Montevideo, Juan Manuel Blanes (1830-1901) was the first Uruguayan painter to achieve widespread recognition. He is recognized as the creator of a national iconography through his panoramic battle pictures, allegories, and portraits of key political figures. Perhaps as an antidote to that public imagery, he moved away from the grand themes and multi-figured epics to find in the gaucho a more personal subject, which he rendered in small-scale pictures. Blanes rarely signed or dated his work, but it is documented that he completed his first painting of a gaucho as he prepared to leave for three years of study in Florence and Rome (1861-1864) on a government scholarship. And he returned often to the subject throughout his long and successful career, producing in effect an extended series of los gauchitos. (1)
In this picture Blanes has orchestrated the elements of the reductive composition to maximum effect, with the single male figure erect against the low horizon line. The gaucho appears in the foreground, where the viewer can study first his dress and then his face, circumscribed by his signature wide-brimmed hat that could double as a halo. He stands in the sunlight and casts a shadow, which extends to the right edge of the picture. The shadow signals the naturalism of the artist, who must have observed and painted such a figure outdoors. Further meaning can be traced through the history of European realist art to Gustave Courbet's famous canvas The Meeting ("Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!") (1854; Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France), an outdoor grouping of himself, his patron Alfred Bruyas, and his manservant. There the artist alone casts a shadow, emphasizing the power of the realist painter.(2) In the hands of Blanes, the gaucho is conceived as a similarly powerful figure who casts a long and significant shadow over the history of Uruguay and Argentina.
A prominent detail of this picture is the gun tucked into the gaucho's sash, with the handle protruding from his right hip. It appears to be an oversized pistol with a grip similar to the butt of a shoulder arm and a flaring barrel, like those made in the mid-eighteenth century at Ripoli, Cataluña, in northern Spain. Called a blunderbuss, or trabuco, this gun could be loaded with small projectiles and used not for hunting, but rather for firing on foes.(3) The typical symbols of the gaucho are his facón, or long knife, and his boleadora, a braided leather strap bound with stones and used as a mode of capture, both of which appear often in Blanes's pictures. The gun is more unusual. An outmoded weapon, it lends an air of nostalgia at the same time it affords the gaucho a menacing look, especially when combined with his body language: he holds his poncho with his left hand, which rests on his chest in a protective gesture, as he peers over his shoulder at some perceived threat just beyond the picture plane. Like the pirates of the Caribbean, whose choice of firearms was also the blunderbuss, this swarthy, bearded gaucho conveys the same air of danger and romance.
At the time Blanes painted the gauchos, they were viewed as romantic. Yet even a few decades earlier they had been looked down upon as lower class mestizos, wild and uneducated. What had changed? Certainly the fact that the gauchos fought bravely in the wars of independence against the Spanish earned the respect of the military. More significantly, the gaucho became a figure of national pride only after the frontier was tamed and the process of modernizing the country was underway. That destroyed his way of life, and his potential threat to cultivated men. In this picture the quality of light, pinkish at the horizon line, indicates twilight: not only the late afternoon, when the gaucho could rest after a day in the saddle, but also the point in history when he passed from reality into the national mythology. José Hernández epic poem of the 1870s entitled El Gaucho Martín Fiero expressed the same spirit as Blanes's intimate representations of the gauchos of the Rio de la Plata:
A son am I of the rolling plain
A gaucho born and bred...
And this is my pride: to live as free
As the bird that cleaves the sky...(4)
Katherine E. Manthorne, Professor of Modern Art of the Americas, The Graduate Center, CUNY, copyright, 2007
(1) For the most comprehensive treatment of the artist see The Art of Juan Manuel Blanes with essays by O. C. Assunção, A. Haber, K. E. Manthorne, and E. J. Sullivan (Buenos Aires: Fundacion Bunge y Born, 1994).
(2) Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from Musée Fabre, Montpellier (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, and Sterling and Francis Clark Art Institute, 2004), 33-43.
(3) S. B. Brinckerhoff & P. A. Chamberlain, Spanish Military Weapons in Colonial America 1700-1821 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1972), 43-44.
(4)"yo soy un gaucho redondo Mi Gloria es vivir tan libre/como el pájaro del cielo." J. Hernández, The Gaucho Martín Fierro, bilingual edition, trans. C.E. Ward (State University of New York Press, 1967), pp. 26, 8.