The Teaching of the Indians, built around a classic triangular arrangement of figures, follows the sober, contained tradition of Portinari's early work. As with the Discovery mural, the artist originally planned a different composition. An ink sketch on file at the Library of Congress shows a seated priest before a mass of striding Indians who bear a curious resemblance to those of the first of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco's frescoes in the Dartmouth College Library. This the painter found "too regimented."
In the finished mural the theme is international, but the symbols are peculiarly Brazilian. The scene is a 16th-century coastal settlement, a village where such Jesuit fathers as Anchieta and Nóbrega labored in peaceful penetration to instruct the Tupi Indians and save their souls. The painter has carefully grouped his figures to show the trust and affection of these Indians for their devoted preceptos. The intimate spirit of the work is fostered by the warm encircling background tones of the rich red earth, colors that go back to the terra roxa of São Paulo, by the presence of the spotted cow mentioned in one of Anchieta's letters, and by scattered folk objects -- a coiled rope, a shining metal trunk, and a hoary calabash, elements familiar as signatures in Portinari's paintings.