Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes, Part 1 – Victor Meirelles

Rio de Janeiro

Ten days ago I had a holiday in search of some sun and hot weather and arrived in Rio.   Besides the usual things to do like swim in the sea, visit Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer and take cable car journeys to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain I went to the main art gallery in the city, Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes.  One travel book said it held 18,000 works of art and sculpture whilst another put the figure at 20,000.  Drawn in by those figures and having little or no knowledge about Brazilian art it was a destination I did not want to miss.  The building housing this vast collection was in the centre of the city and when we walked in we were told the collection was on the second and third floor.  Whether I am not good at counting but I would estimate the total number of artworks to be about 500 with about 200 sculptures so what happened to the others?  There was room after room of empty white walls so maybe there was once a large collection but it has now disappeared.  I am sure somebody will tell me where they all went.  Before I show you some of the fine works which were on display I have another complaint!  How many art galleries have you been to that have no shop or café?  Well this was a first for me.  I so wanted to buy some catalogues to find out about the works which were on display so I asked about the whereabouts of the shop only to be told that unfortunately there wasn’t one….unbelievable !!!!

In my next couple of blogs I am going to put those disappointments behind me and concentrate on what was good about the museum.  There were many beautiful paintings on display including two monumental historical works by two different Brazilian painters, which were displayed along one wall of a very long room.   The first work was by Victor Meirelles and was entitled Battle of Guararapes which he completed in 1879.  It measured 494cms x 923cms and the other, which was even bigger was entitled, Battle of Avaí and was by the Brazilian artist Pedro Américo.  This one measured 600cms x 1100cms.  However today I want to concentrate on the art work of Victor Meirelles.

Victor Meirelles
Victor Meirelles

Victor Meirelles de Lima was born in August 1832 in Nossa Senhora do Desterro, which is now known as Florianópolis, a town on the island of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil.  His parents, Antonio Meirelles de Lima and Maria da Conceição, were impoverished Portuguese immigrants.

He showed an early talent for art and in 1849, aged 17, he attended the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.  It was here that he specialised in genre and historical painting. This Academy was founded by the then present ruler of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, Don João VI, around 1816.  It was the main official institution of Brazilian academic art.  It had come to fruition with the arrival of the Missão Artistica Francesca (French Artistic Mission), which arrived in Brazil in 1816 and had suggested the creation of an art academy which would be modelled on the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.  It, like its French counterpart, would have graduation courses both for artists and craftsmen for such diverse activities modelling, decorating and carpentry.  The leader of the mission and the instigator of this plan was Joachim Lebreton who had fallen foul of the post-French revolutionary leaders and had sort exile in Brazil.  Like the French Academy the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio awarded as a prize to the best artists a travel scholarship.

Saint John the Baptist in Prison by Victor Meirelles (1852)
Saint John the Baptist in Prison by Victor Meirelles (1852)

Victor Meirelles was a brilliant scholar and in 1852 won the travel scholarship to Europe with his painting São João Batista no Cárcere (St. John the Baptist in Prison) and in June 1853 he set off on his artistic journey.  His first port of call was Le Havre and then after a brief stay in Paris headed to Rome.

His initial studies were at the Piazza Venezia studio of the Italian painter and author of books on art theory, Tommaso Minardi but Meirelles found his tuition too dogmatic and he felt artistically constrained and felt that he lacked the prospect of developing his own artistic ideas.   He then moved to the studio of Nicola Consonni  who was a member of Rome’s Guild of St. Luke.  Again Meirelles found his mentor too strict but the one thing he did gain was the opportunity to improve his life drawing skills as Consonni gave his students drawing sessions with live models.  The ability to master the art of figure drawing was a prerequisite to becoming a talented historical painter.  Meirelles left Rome and moved to Florence where the museums were overflowing with the works of the great Italian Masters such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese and he spent much of his time copying their works. One of the stipulations of the Travel Prize was that he would regularly send back to Rio work he had completed as proof of his artistic progress and this he had done during his three-year European stay.  The Brazilian government was so impressed with the work they received, that they granted him a further three year scholarship in Europe.

In 1856, Meirelles moved from Florence to Milan and then on to Paris where he studied at the ateliers of the French historical painter and portraitist, Léon Cogniet and the Paris-based Italian historical painter, André Gastaldi.  Meirelles was a dedicated student whose whole life was devoted to learning about art and when his extended scholarship came to an end the Brazilian government on seeing the work he had sent to them agreed to a further two year scholarship extension.  They were well aware that Meirelles was going to become one of Brazil’s finest painters.

First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meirelles (1861)
First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meirelles (1861)

It was during this final scholarship extension that Meirelles painted his most famous work, Primeira Missa no Brasil,  (The First Mass in Brazil), which was exhibited at the 1861 Paris Salon. In fact it was the first work by a Brazilian artist to appear at the Salon.  It is now housed at the art museum in Rio.  The painting depicts the official historic version of the discovery of Brazil as a heroic and peaceful event, celebrated in harmony by colonists and native Indians.  Meirelles had based his depiction on some resources he found about the Brazilian Indian at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris.   In the work we see the monk Henrique de Coimbra celebrating mass on April 26, 1500. The painting made Meirelles’s name and has illustrated many history books, stamps, bank notes, catalogues and magazines.  It is such an iconic work and is probably the best known painting in Brazil.

Dom Pedro II by Victor Meirelles (1864)
Dom Pedro II by Victor Meirelles (1864)

Following his artistic success with his painting, Meirelles returned to Brazil in 1861 as an artistic hero because of  this painting.  He was awarded the Imperial Ordem da Rosa (Knight of the Order of the Rose) by Emperor Dom Pedro II and he became one of the Emperor’s favourite painters, and in 1864 he completed a portrait of the Emperor.

Moema by Victor Meirelles (1866)
Moema by Victor Meirelles (1866)

He was appointed Honorary Professor of the Academy, and shortly after promoted to Acting Teacher of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.   He continued painting important historical works, which for many Brazilians pictorially recounted their history. In his 1866 work entitled Moema he highlighted the sad plight of the Brazilian indigenous population and their clashes with the Dutch and Portuguese colonists.  It was a work of art which was known as Indianism which was the term used which refers to the idealisation of the indigenous people of Brazil,d who were sometimes portrayed as mythical national heroes.  In nineteenth century Brazilian literature the indigenous people of the country were chosen to represent the new nation.  Indianism was a form of Romanticism in Brazilian art.

Battle of Guararapes by Victor Meirelles (1879)
Battle of Guararapes by Victor Meirelles (1879)

In 1875 Meirelles was commissioned to produce a historical work based on a seventeenth century battle between the Dutch colonizers and the Portugeuse/Brazilian army.  He went to the area where the conflict had occurred in order to produce a topographical accurate background and began making preliminary sketches for his monumental historical work which became known as Batalha de Guararapes (Battle of Guararapes).  Meirelles completed the work four years later. It was a depiction of the First Battle of Guararapes which took place in 1648 in the Guararapes Hills in the north-east of the country and was part of the Pemambucana Insurrection between the Dutch army who had colonized much of the area and the Portuguese army.  However it was not the Portuguese army per se as the forces fighting the Dutch colonizing army were in fact considered the origin of the Brazilian Army, because it was the first time where whites, blacks and Indians joined forces to fight for Brazil, their land, instead of fighting for Portugal.

The painting had a surface area of 45 square metres, measuring 494cms x 923cms.  I stood before this work and marvelled at the detail that went into it.   It really is an awesome work of art.

Naval Battle of Riachuelo"by Victor Meirelles (1883)
Naval Battle of Riachuelo by Victor Meirelles (1883)

Being known as a strong supporter of the Empire and because of his loyalty to the national cause, Meirelles was also commissioned in 1868 by the Brazilian government to create an historical work which featured Brazil’s crucial naval victory during its war with Paraguay.  The Battle of Riachuelo took place on the Paraná River in June 1865 and it was a turning point in the war between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.  The war which had begun in 1864 lasted six years.  Meirelles travelled to the region of the conflict so as to gather impressions of the landscape and the military environment. He installed a workshop on the ship Brazil, which was the flagship of the Brazilian fleet, and remained on board for six months preparing sketches for the painting.

Everything was going well for Meirelles until on November 15, 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca headed a military coup which led to the downfall and exile of the sixty-eight year old Emperor Dom Pedro II .  The Empire had fallen and was replaced by a Republic.  As was the case with many French artists who had connections with the family of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, they too quickly fell out of favour with the onset of the French Revolution.  Whereas When Emperor Dom Pedro was ruler of Brazil his patronage of Victor Meirelles was a boon to the artist but when the Emperor was deposed artists connected with the Emperor and the court were cut adrift.  Meirelles also lost his position at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, the spurious reason for his sacking was that he was too old.  He was just fifty-seven years of age.  Victor Meirelles de Lima died in Rio de Janeiro on February 23rd 1903 aged 70.  It was a Sunday morning and the Carnival was in full swing but few mourned the passing of the once iconic artist.

Victor Meirelles Museum, Florianapolis
Victor Meirelles Museum, Florianapolis

Today, besides his work which is on display at the Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, there is a museum dedicated to him and his work in his birthplace, Florianapolis.  The museum is in a house, built of stone masonry, bricks and stucco, fences which have openings with a wooden roof with tiles. It was acquired by the Union in 1947 and National Heritage and National Art in 1950  The works of Meirelles are exhibited on the upper floor whilst the ground floor contains works by contemporary artists.  The mission of the Victor Meirelles Museum, set in its Museum Plan, is set out as:

“…To preserve, research, and the life and work of Victor Meirelles, and disseminate, promote and preserve the historical, artistic and cultural society, and also stimulate reflection and experimentation in the arts, heritage and contemporary thought, contributing to the expansion of access to the most different cultural events and for training and exercise of citizenship…”

It is good that the country that once hailed Meirelles as an iconic artist and then abandoned him have finally realised the contribution he made to the history and life of Brazil.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes, Part 1 – Victor Meirelles”

  1. It’s a government facility. You’re supposed to give them your food; that’s why they don’t have a coffee shop. Good post though.

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