History of Brazilian 19th Century Art by Marcelo Jorge

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History of Brazilian 19th Century Art

by Marcelo Jorge

Background Information

To better understand Brazilian 19th Century painting, it is first important to understand a bit about the Colonial period of the 18th century (1700s). The Colonial era was a dim period for Brazilian art. Cultural life was dominated by the Church, religious festivities and congregations, as too were painting, sculpture and other artistic manifestations. Portugal, the Colonial Metropolis, held a tight grasp over Brazilian intellectual life, avoiding the surging of a local intellectual elite. In the arts, the situation was especially difficult because there was not a tradition of patronage either in Portugal or in the American colony, reducing the professional market almost solely to the decoration of new temples, as can be seen in the dazzling plafond by José Joaquim da Rocha in São Domingos Church, Salvador, as well as the production of religious imagery to private owners. Education was provided in the workshop system of masters and apprentices.

Early 19th Century Painting

In 1808, the scenario changed. The Portuguese Royal Family moved from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and the sacred repertoire started to be gradually replaced by more cosmopolitan trends. In 1816, Portuguese King Dom Joao VI engaged a group of high profile French artists to provide the Brazilian realm with the best artistic education available at the time. He thus founded the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts, which would soon become the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro, under the independent government of Emperor Pedro I1. By this action, an artistic transatlantic bridge between Brazil and Europe was raised that would give shape to Brazilian art.

Many important artists and intellectuals of the Parisian art world were part of the French retinue that landed in Brazil in the beginning of the 19th century. Among them, some of the most renowned were Joachim le Breton (1760-1819), Perpetual Secretary of the Fine Arts Class of the French Institute (the Napoleonic heir to the French Académie de Beaux-Arts); Nicolas Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), painter, French pensioner in Rome and member of the Institute; Auguste-Marie Taunay (1768-1824), Prix de Rome in Sculpture in 1792; Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean de Montingy (1776-1850), Prix de Rome in Architecture in 1799 and Court Architect to king Jérôme Bonaparte of Westphalia, and Jean Baptiste Debret (1768-1848) student of Jacques Louis David, history painter and nominee to the Prix Decennaux of 1810. These gentlemen were the teachers of the first group of Brazilian artists trained under international standards.

Jose Maria de Medeiros
Oil on canvas, 1884

The Academy found success among students immediately, but the Brazilian elite was not ready for this type of Cultural Revolution, buying few works and taking little interest in the fine arts. These were the problems the first generation of Brazilian artists who graduated under the French masters had to deal with, among them Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre , José Correia de Lima, Augusto Müller , Corte Real and Félix Emile Taunay (son of Nicolas Antoine Taunay).

Another problem was finding models for the nude classes, deemed indispensable by the French professors and their Brazilian successors.Félix Emile Taunay, who became Director of the Academy from 1837 to 1850, took it upon himself year after year of finding new models for the classes. In some cases even slaves were used, sometimes many years in a row.With no market for figurative art in general, there was little demand for models, which prevented the rise of "modeling" as a profession and of its respective market, hindering the finding of proper candidates2, or even candidates at all. The use of plaster casts mitigated the problem, but the lack of models persisted throughout the century.

Landscape found more favor among Brazilian buyers, and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro still has some of these beautiful paintings. View of a Forest being Turned into Coal is a fine example, though it is a piece that in addition to being a landscape, is filled with social criticism. The painting portrays a wood in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro being deforested, with the clear purpose of denouncing the practice. Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre, on the other hand, gave landscape a more romantic flavor, as can be seen in A Grotto. Other important landscape painters were Antônio Parreiras , Garcia y Vazquez , Nicolau Facchinetti , Agostinho da Mota and Arsênio Cintra da Silva .

It's worth noticing that, unlike the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Brazilian Academy provided classes of painting3 - one of them being the class of "Landscape, flowers and animals". Some painters were especially gifted in producing still lives, such as Agostinho da Mota, who has painted a superb Papaya and Watermelon and Estêvão Silva , who became known for his still lives specifically; Fruits and Orchids are prime examples.

The Height of the Period

As mentioned previously, the Academy followed the French tradition, and one of the main aims of the institution was to prepare able history painters. In 1845, the Brazilian Government decided to award Academy students with scholarships to study in Europe, much inspired by the French Prix de Rome. Going to Europe allowed the young artists the opportunity to deepen their studies, to see the masterpieces, and to get in touch with modern masters and trends in art. That gave chance for real development in Brazilian art, since the returning artists could update their colleagues and students.

The first scholarship holders again followed the standard set by the French Academy and the Prix de Rome, choosing Rome as their destination, as the winners were allowed to choose where they wanted to settle. One of those who opted for Rome was Agostinho da Mota , in 1850, focusing on landscape and producing the beautiful View of Rome.

The Prize of 1849 was an especially polemic one, and was a main cause for the fall of Félix Emile Taunay and the rise of Manuel de Araújo Porto - Alegre to the Directorship of the Academy in 1854. Jean Léon Pallière , the winner in 1849, was the grandson of Grandjean de Montigny, the pioneer and French professor of architecture in the Academy.Although Pallière was born in Rio and was partly Brazilian, he had spent his whole life in France.Deciding to run for the scholarship, he went back to Brazil, where he spent about one year before wining the contest. The result gave rise to many complaints, both in the Academy and in the press, because Pallière's claim to "Brazilian" nationality was arguable, and also because of his European background, which had allowed him to be much more prepared than his Brazilian contestants. He was granted the scholarship anyway and produced some beautiful works in Paris, such as Jesus Christ in Gethsemane, Faun and Bacchante and Deposition of Jesus Christ. He later came back to South America but did not dare settle in Brazil, choosing Argentina instead.This was most likely because he was considered a persona non grata by many prominent personalities in Rio's art world.

In the following years, the artists would slowly gravitate towards Paris. Victor Meirelles won the 1852 prize and spent 8 years in Europe, first in Rome and then in Paris. He would be the first Brazilian artist to exhibit in the Paris Salon.He was especially influential on the next generation of artists, and he is one of the most important Brazilian History painters of the 19th Century. His canvas The Naval Battle of Riachuelo was showcased in the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.This was one of the extremely rare opportunities when North and South American artists had the chance to share their works in the 19th century.

Zeferino da Costa (Prize of 1868, Rome) had a special predilection for religious painting, with works like The Widow's Mite and Moses and Jocabed. Pedro Américo (special scholarship given by the Emperor Pedro II, 1859, Paris) was an especially prolific painter, painting themes like Jeanne of Arc and Heloisa's Vow. He would later live in Florence, where his younger brother Aurélio de Figueiredo joined him. Rodolpho Bernardelli , sculptor, won the prize in 1876 and spent 9 years in Europe.

The following contest, in 1878, was also very controversial. Bernardelli's brother, Henrique Bernardelli , was a finalist with Rodolfo Amoedo . The jurors, the professors of the Academy, declared they could not choose one of them, being both equally fit to win. The professors were probably trying to pressure the government into awarding both the contestants a scholarship.The Director of the Academy did not accept the irresolution and bestowed the scholarship on Amoedo.In the end, both would end up studying in Europe: Amoedo settled in Paris with the government aid, and Henrique went to Rome on his own expenses, where he could live with his brother.Some examples of how prolific that European sojourn was for both of them are Amoedo's The Departure of Jacob and The Narrative of Philetas, which he produced while studying under Alexander Cabanel , and Henrique Bernardelli's Motherhood and Tarantella.

Oscar Pereira da Silva , the last scholarship holder of the Empire, went to Paris, were he studied under Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme . A sample of his work during this period is Samson and Delilah.

Popular Themes

In Brazil, the second half of the 19th century witnessed a boom of interest in Indian themes. This was the Brazilian counterpart of Europe's Romantic Movement that sought inspiration from History and stories of Chivalry and the Middle Ages. The Brazilian hero par excellence, as seen by 19th century intellectuals, was the Indian, the brave and irreproachable warrior of the forests who dared the Portuguese colonizers.

While Corte Real's 1840s Nobrega and his Companions still showed the Indians as cannibal beasts, Pedro Peres's 1879's Elevation of the cross in Porto Seguro, Bahia, already gave the Native Americans a role in building the Brazilian nation and Augusto Duarte's Exequies of Atala, of 1878, gave Chactas a more prominent place and role in the painting than Girodet's French version of 1808.

Rodolfo Amoedo
The Last Tamoyo
Oil on canvas, 1883

Rodolfo Amoedo's The Last Tamoyo, of 1883, painted in Paris, is probably one of the most touching paintings of 19th century Brazilian art.The work depicts Father Anchieta picking Aimbire's body up from the beach.Aimbire was the chief of a confederation of indigenous tribes who rebelled from Portuguese slavery and expelled the colonizers from Guanabara Bay, where Rio de Janeiro now stands.Later, the Portuguese would come back and, in the battle, Aimbire would be killed. Father Anchieta was a fellow Jesuit with Nobrega, which is depicted in Corte Real's 1840's work.

At last, in 1884, José Maria de Medeiros's painting Iracema, formed the closure to the tormented relation between Brazil and its former Metropolis. The theme was picked up from José de Alencar's book of 1865, which tells the story of the Indian Iracema, who falls in love with the Portuguese Martim and gives birth to a son called Moacir("the son of pain"), the first interracial Brazilian.IRACEMA is an anagram for AMERICA, and represents the fate of the continent.By the end of the 19th Century, the Indian was a savage no more: he was the symbol of values cherished by Brazilians.

Unlike many Latin American countries, Brazilian artists were free to produce nudes, and almost all major artists produced a reasonable amount of them, both as a part of history paintings, and also as a theme of its own. Amongst these works, we can cite Victor Meirelles' The Bacchante, Pedro Américo's David and Abizag, Carioca and The Night surrounded by the genii of Study and Love, Léon Pallière's Faun and Bacchante, Zeferino da Costa's Saint John the Baptist and The Pompeian, and Rodolfo Amoedo's Maraba (which is also Indian themed) as well as his Study of a Woman.

Brazilian painters were also prolific in producing genre paintings. Almeida Junior (who studied under Cabanel in Paris) painted The Rest of the Model, and Frederico made In the Studio produced in Italy. Rodolfo Amoedo (with Bad News, Belmiro de Almeida (with Tiffs) and Zeferino da Costa (with Charity chose to portray social themes. Pedro Weingartner studied in Paris with a scholarship granted by Emperor Pedro II, after a letter written by William Bouguereau to the Brazilian monarch interceding in favor of his student, who was practically starving in Europe.Weingartner was especially keen to regional genre painting. In Arrived Late he depicts the moment when a traveling salesman arrives too late to make a sale; another one has already arrived.

Lastly, one of the main sources of income for Brazilian painters, as elsewhere, was the production of portraits. That is arguably the genre of 19th century painting most abundant in Brazilian museums. Although the main models were the Imperial Family, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, portraitists have left some interesting images of 19th commoners, as Augusto Müller's Manoel Correia dos Santos - Sumaca Master, A Seaman and Correia de Lima's Portrait of the Intrepid Sailor Simon, and Coal Worker of the Steamboat 'Pernambuco', another seaman famous for having saved 13 shipwrecks.

Unfortunately, The Academy of Fine Arts in Rio did not have many sculptors. Among those we can cite Chaves Pinheiro , Nicolina Vaz de Assis , one of the first prominent women artists in Brazil, and Rodolpho Bernardelli, who would become Director of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1890.

The End of the Era

With the fall of the monarchy in 1889, some of the most important and traditional professors of the Academy such as Victor Meirelles and Pedro Americo, were expelled by the Republican Government and replaced by more modern artists such as Rodolpho Bernardelli and Rodolfo Amoedo. These and other artists would keep producing and teaching in an academic style throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, but the tastes were changing and painters with more impressionistic style started to outshine the ancient masters. By the mid of the century, the economic and intellectual Brazilian elites had already followed the path set by their American and French counterparts and 19th century artists were virtually forgotten. But, as elsewhere, the last decades of the 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in those masters and, nowadays, they are being studied and celebrated as never before.


By the time the Brazilian Academy was created, in 1822, Portugal had not yet an academy of her own. The Fine Arts Academy of Lisbon was founded in 1836, by Dona Maria II, queen of Portugal, daughter of Pedro I of Brazil. The first American Academy of Fine Arts was, however, the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City, of 1783, founded under the auspices of Spanish King Carlos III, grandfather of Queen Carlota Joaquina, wife of King Dom João VI of Portugal.


Professor João Zeferino da Costa would complain as late as 1883: "The models posing for the History Painting class (men, women, children) are not professionals, because there isn't such a profession in our country. We are, therefore, obliged to seek [...] between beggars those who, by their physiognomy, can be used for that end." (Cybele Vidal Neto Fernandes. O ensino de pintura e escultura na Academia Imperial de Belas Artes. In.Sonia Gomes Pereira (org.). 185 anos de Escola de Belas Artes. Rio de Janeiro: PPGAV/EBA/UFRJ, 2001/2002, p. 20)


In Paris, that would happen only in 1863.