Martín Malharro, born in the city of Azul on August 25th, 1865, came from a well-to-do family, with lands in the Province of Buenos Aires. His artistic inclinations were apparent from early on. At age fourteen, given the unbending opposition of his father to his calling, he broke up both with his father and his past. He travelled to Buenos Aires where he worked to earn a living. He changed his last name from Mailharro to Malharro.
He began taking drawing lessons at the Asociación Estímulo de Bellas Artes under the direction of Francisco Romero in 1882. To earn his daily bread, he designed cigarette labels, business cards, letterheads, etc. He travelled to Santa Fe and Córdoba where he painted landscapes.
In 1890, he spent a long period on the ranch of Dr. José Ramos Mejía who, being interested in his paintings, protected him and provided him with an atmosphere free of material preoccupation. His experience in the open air facing the massive Pampas laid the groundwork for his contact with Impressionism.
Around 1891, he travelled to Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas, where the light and the marine atmosphere caused him to change his palette, so his shades, typical of chiaroscuro, became tinged with colour. The following year, he met Alfonso Bosco, an Italian engraver and lithographer who helped him develop these techniques.
He participated in the 2º Salón del Ateneo
held in 1894 by showing a landscape entitled Al caer la tarde
(At dusk) and two marines, El acorazado Huáscar
(The Huáscar battleship) and El corsario La Argentina.
The latter obtained a second honorary mention and was featured in the newspapers of the capital.
Through Robert J. Payró, who appreciated his work, he came to know Martiniano Leguizamón with whom he became friends and for whose book Recuerdos de la tierra, that was to appear the following year, he made the illustrations. Payró put him in touch with La Nación newspaper, where he worked as an illustrator, greatly easing his economic situation. The attempt to grant him a scholarship to study in France failed, nevertheless towards the end of 1895, Malharro decided to book a passage on a cargo vessel and he set off for Paris, taking his lithographic stone with him.
He settled in Montmartre and lived thanks to his drawings, illustrations, fashion figurines and millinery. Shortly after that, his wife, Maria Luisa Laborit, and his children María Amalia and Martín joined him. His romantic manner and the naturalism learned at the Asociación Estímulo workshops were in line with the work of Millet and the painters of the Barbizón School but, during those years spent in Europe, he was mainly influenced by Impressionism and he analysed the painting technique, the qualities of illumination, the setting and the quest for Nature.
In 1901, he returned to Buenos Aires after attending the Paris Centenary Exhibition in 1900 which strengthened the success of Impressionism in the eyes of the general public. This circumstance determined his distancing from the academic principles and, shortly after, he painted En plena naturaleza (Pure Nature) and El arado (The Plough), in Auvers-sur-Oise.
The following year, Galería Witcomb
organised an exhibition of his paintings carried out in France, some of them finished in Buenos Aires. On the closing, Joaquin V. González approved the acquisition of En plena naturaleza
(Pure Nature) for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The exhibition, according to José García Martinez, "would be one of the great attempts to update art in the country". Romualdo Brughetti stated that although "Faustino Brughetti exhibited impressionist paintings a year before, the merit of Malharro was that he fought for that aesthetic ideology". Indeed, a while later, Malharro began to publish articles (Diario
, Ideas y Figuras
) and give lectures to make his thoughts known and to explain his work.
In 1904, he started teaching. He was to hold the position of Technical Inspector of Drawing of the Province of Buenos Aires, to be Director of Temporary Courses in the Ministry of Public Instruction, to lecture at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, at the Escuela Normal de Profesores and the Escuela Normal de Maestros in Barracas. The result of this activity was the publication, in 1911, of his book El dibujo en la escuela primaria (Drawing in primary school).
In June 1908, he held his second exhibition at Galería Witcomb, composed of 51 water-colours and 2 pastels. According to Angel Osvaldo Nessi "a remarkable change could be seen: the tendency to illustrate was accentuated, the water-colour technique executed in minimal pochades with evident haste was becoming general and there was a risk of affectation". This exhibition was not as successful as the previous one. During that year and that which followed, he painted a series of nocturnal scenes close to symbolism, a tendency that had appeared in earlier works such as Mis amigos los árboles (My friends the trees) in which Jorge López Anaya perceives "not only a pronounced anti-academic element, but also the anti-impressionist thrust that associates this picture with symbolism. It is enough to observe the anthropomorphism of the trees, their pathetic expression, the distortion of the masses of vegetation that are compressed against the lower edge and reduce the illusion of space and the dominant blue colour. Everything seems to recall that phrase of Maeterlink, 'the symbol is the organic and inner allegory; it is rooted in darkness'."
He died on August, 17th, 1911, when he was preparing a third exhibition that was to be posthumous and would open in October. Nessi observed that "Malharro takes up a lighter and more vibrant palette from the Paris of the end of the Century that endows his academy with a new lease of life; but also, in addition to that more airy technique, there appears a somewhat hybrid word-view, a sort of compromise between his Creole background and some confused new ideals. Thus, Malharro, who introduced impressionism to Argentina, was not to be an orthodox impressionist. The way he broke up the picture plane through touches of colour is, in him, combined with a visual realism that, in his somewhat melancholic temperament, lacks the Spring-like enchantment of a Monet, and that will be reflected in works inspired by twilight and the night."