Giovanni Battista Castagneto was born into a humble Genoese family of sailors in 1851. After working for a few years at the port of Genoa, he left with his father for Rio de Janeiro in 1874, aged just 23. Initially, like many Ligurian emigrants, they both worked as fishermen, but their father Lorenzo Castagneto did everything he could to change his son’s destiny.
From Genoa to Rio de Janeiro
He applies to get him into the Academia Imperial das belas artes by falsifying his son’s age, as the institute allowed admission at a maximum age of seventeen. After his initial and gratifying achievements, especially in the field of history painting, John Baptist decided to devote himself to the study of landscape painting, attending the courses of the German Georg Grimm, who at that time was managing a real break with academic methods.
With the creation of his en plein air landscape school at Praia de Boa Viagem in Niterói, known as the Grupo Grimm, the greatest pictorial revolution in modern Brazil took place, of which Castagneto was one of the main protagonists. Defined as ‘o pintor do mar’ by his main scholar, Maciel Levy, in 1982, he soon revealed himself to be an unconventional artist, opposed to the rigidity of academic instances, ready to propose a free landscape painting, in which the extreme gestural freedom of the brushstroke and the almost monochromatic tendency of the palette become the key components of his language.
The mutability of Brazilian seascapes: a synthetic and material chromatism
After a decisive stay in Toulon in 1890, he returned to Brazil, initiating the mature phase of his production, which mainly focused on the representation of the fast-changing nature of Brazilian navies. He often works with unusual media, such as cigar box lids. ‘When he does not have time to change brushes, he handles just one, dipping it in various colours, or paints with his fingers, his nails, his palette knife, with the first object he has to hand: a pebble, a piece of stick, a piece of string, a toothpick, a pipe, the tip of a cigarette’ (Gonzaga Duque, A Arte brasileira: pintura e esculptura, 1888, p. 175).
He chose the island of Paquetá as a personal refuge away from urban life in which to experiment with an ever-increasing process of formal simplification. The last decade of his life is considered to be the one in which the most innovative part of his research is concentrated: the island’s long stretches of sand, the sky and the sea merge into an almost material chromatism and a rapid and synthetic gesture, while the figures are reduced to faint profiles that can be glimpsed amidst the luminous and opalescent colours of the caliginous and humid atmosphere of the beaches. All expressed in a rich “constellation of small autonomous paintings that are inexplicably attractive in their similarity” (Maciel Levy, Giovanni Battista Castagneto:1851-1900: o pintor do mar, 1982, p. 51), executed between 1896 and 1900, the year of his death.