This “portrait of Brazil” was originally published in 1929 and, to the surprise of the author went through several editions in the next few years. Paulo Prado was not a historian by profession. He was the scion of one of São Paulo’s most influential and wealthy families who for most of his life gave his first attention to the family coffee business. He was also an active and sympathetic patron of Brazilian artists and writers.
The Retrato, the author says, is only an attempt to sketch a panoramic view of the settlement and evolution of Brazil. In it Prado develops his thesis: first, that the earliest Europeans to seek Brazil, coming from a Europe where the Renaissance had broken down the narrow confines of medieval thought and finding a land that promised every luxury—riches, naked and voluptuous Indian women, a climate that favored an easy-going life—bequeathed to their descendants a cupidity and sensuality that has since dominated Brazilian life; and second, that these traits were compounded by the social effects of African slavery. These factors produced the melancholy that is so marked a trait of the Brazilian and also the romanticism that held such sway in Brazilian thought, polities, and letters in the nineteenth century.
In 1928 these ideas were new and startling to many. Since then—and especially as the result of the work of such writers as Gilberto Freire—sociological speculation of this sort has become widely accepted. Nevertheless, the glimpse that Prado gives of Brazilian society over the centuries—drawn from wide reading and sympathetic insight—is a vivid and enduring contribution to Brazilian letters.