How are the Donner Party and Tarsila do Amaral related?

Short answer: Cannibalism. The Donner Party was a group of pioneers who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and had to resort to cannibalism; Tarsila do Amaral was a Brazilian modernist painter instrumental in the formation of the aesthetic movement Antropofagia (cannibalism).

Abaporu by Tarsila do Amaral. Source: MALBA

One of the other residency applicants during my interview today was from Brazil. Separately, my friend sent me the most recent episode of “Great Art Explained” about Dali’s Persistence of Memory. Somehow these two things together reminded me of the magnificent work of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973).

Tarsila was the scion of coffee plantation owners in São Paulo and studied art in Brazil before leaving for Paris. There she studied with noted Cubists such as Fernand Leger and Andre Lhote- which helped inform her future work. In 1928, she painted Abaporu (oil painting on canvas) as a birthday present for her husband, the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade. In the Tupi language (an language formerly spoken by the aboriginal peoples of South and Southeast Brazil), abapor’u means “the man who eats man” from aba (man), poro (people) and u (eat). The painting itself was described by Tarsila as “a monstrous solitary figure, enormous feet, sitting on a green plain, the hand supporting the featherweight minuscule head. In front a cactus exploding in an absurd flower.”

Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question.

Oswald de Andrade in Manifesto Antropofago

When Oswald saw the painting, he was said to have exclaimed “That looks like a cannibal, a man of the earth.” This went on to inspire Oswald to write the Manifesto Antropofago (Anthropophagic [Cannibal] Manifesto”). The manifesto proposes that Brazil “cannibalize” European culture, ridding themselves of direct influences to create their own culture. In the short term, the ideas of the Manifesto were suppressed in the wake of the Brazilian revolution of 1930 and the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas. In the longer term, the Manifesto would help inspire figures in the Tropicalismo movement of the 1960s.

Abaporu was sold in 1999 for $1.5 million to a (gasp) Argentinian collector and sits in the MALBA in Buenos Aires. Today, it is valued at over $100 million. However, as Freakonomics noted in their second podcast on art this week, all value is theoretical until it comes time for auction… The most expensive Brazilian painting to actually sell at auction is Tarsila’s A caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail made with cahaca [sugarcane liquor], sugar, and lime). This painting was sold by court order and went for $9.25 million, beating out Alberto de Veiga Guignard’s Vaso de flores.

A Caipirinha - Tarsila do Amaral -
A Caparinha by Tarsila do Amaral. Source: Wikiart

The Donner Party was a group of unfortunate Illinois pioneers that attempted to join the westward migration to California in 1846. Consisting of the families and employees of brothers George and Jacob Donner and local businessman James Reed, the party started off around 30 people strong. Their journey was unremarkable at first, reaching Independence, Missouri in May and Fort Laramie, Wyoming in July. However, their party (along with 50 unfortunate others) split off from the main group in late July, intending to head to California instead of Oregon. Following the advice of the unreliable explorer Lansford Hastings (and later Major in the Confederate States Army – they truly hired the best and the brightest), the party pushed ahead into the Hastings Cutoff. This route was 125 miles longer than the established trail and cut through inhospitable deserts. The group lost valuable time over the next few months breaking new trails, fixing wagons, and searching for dying cattle. By late September, the Donner Party was the final migrant party heading towards California. On October 31st, the group finally reached Donner Pass… and found their route blocked by snow.

10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party - HISTORY
Hastings Cutoff. Source:

The party then built makeshift cabins around a nearby lake (Donner Lake) and tried to subsist through the winter. Due to the harsh weather and inadequate food supplies, deaths soon occurred; this left the survivors to resort to cannibalism of the dead bodies. For those interested in a more detailed accounting, the Encyclopedia Britannica provides a great summary. Amazingly, the last survivor did not leave the camp until April 21, subsisting on cannibalism for weeks. Although harrowing, the misfortunes of the Donner party did nothing to slow the pace of migration to California. Today, Donner Lake is a gorgeous alternative to Lake Tahoe – I can personally attest it is a great place to boat, hike, and water-ski.

Donner Lake - Wikipedia
Donner Lake. Source


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