In my last blog I talked about my visit to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro and featured one of the great Brazilian artists, Victor Meirelles. Some would have us believe that he was the greatest Brazilian artist of all times, whilst others would put forward the name of Pedro Américo for that honour. A number of Américo’s works were on show at the museum so in this blog I want to look at his life and feature some of his paintings I saw as well as look at others, which are on show in other Brazilian cities.
Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Mello was born in April 1843 in the municipality of Areia in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba. As far as the art world was concerned he was simply known as Pedro Américo. He was one of six children of Daniel Edward Figueiredo, a merchant and Feliciana Cime. He was brought up in an artistic household with his father a keen violinist, who taught him music and drawing and through art books got him interested in the paintings and lives of the Old Masters. Américo’s biographers all agree that he was an avid learner and soon developed a precocious talent for drawing. As far as drawing was concerned he was a gifted child and some believed he was a child prodigy. His amazing artistic ability soon became common knowledge in Rio and when, in 1852, a scientific expedition to the north east of Brazi, led by the French naturalist, Louis Jacques Brunet, arrived in Rio the leader visited Pedro’s home to see his work. He also tested his draughtsmanship by getting the young boy to copy a few objects. Brunet was so impressed with the results that he signed him up as an auxiliary draughtsman on his scientific expedition during which time he would pictorially document the flora, fauna and landscape encountered on the journey. Pedro Américo had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday but with his father’s blessing, he set off on the twenty-month expedition.
The artistic work he produced was so good that he was awarded a place at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, but being too young his placement was postponed for a year and as a stop-gap, he attended the Colégio Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied Latin, French, Portuguese, arithmetic, drawing and music. In 1856 he took up his place on a three-year course of Industrial Design at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes. At the academy he honed his skill as a draughtsman and painter and his progress was rapid. He was an outstanding student and won many medals for his work.
The court of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II came to hear about Pedro Américo’s artistic talent and the emperor, who was a great art lover and patron of the arts, was amazed by his artistic skill and before Pedro had completed his studies the Emperor had arranged to finance a European scholarship for him. Pedro accepted the travel scholarship, the terms of which were, in return for a three-year funding, he would attend the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts, conform to the rigid disciplines of the Academy and regularly send back works he had completed, such as life studies and copies of the paintings of the Old Masters, so that it could be verified that he had been hard working and that he was progressing with his art. Going to Europe and attending the Académie was the greatest gift an artist could receive.
Pedro Américo arrived in Paris in May 1859 and aged just sixteen enrolled at the École National Superiéure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was at this prestigious school of art that he was taught by the great French painters of the time, such as the neo-classical historical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin and the battle painter Horace Vernet. Not satisfied with just improving his art he also wanted to expand his knowledge with regards other subjects. He availed himself of the opportunity to study physics at the Paris Institute of Physics and he also attended the University of the Sorbonne. Here he studied architecture, theology, literature and philosophy, with tutors in these fields such as the French philosopher, Victor Cousin and the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Pedro Américo took advantage of the opportunity of attending lectures on physics by Michael Faraday and on archaeology by Charles Ernest Beule. Besides his artistic talent, one must never overlook Pedro Américo’s all-round intelligence. His essay Refutation of the Life of Jesus by Renan won him the decoration of the papal order of the Holy Sepulchre. He gained a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the Sorbonne, with his thesis Considerações Filosóficas sobre as Belas Artes entre os Antigos (Philosophical Considerations on the Fine Arts among the Ancients).
During his time at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he won a number of prizes for his works of art. One of the paintings Pedro Américo completed, around 1863, whilst studying at the Académie and which he sent back home for inclusion in the seventeenth General Exhibition, held at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio, was entitled A Carioca. Carioca is a Brazilian word that is used to refer to the native inhabitants of the city of Rio de Janeiro. It was a painting of a nude woman who was to symbolize the Brazilian indigenous population. It was painted in a classical style, and could well have been influenced by Turkish Bath, a painting which his former tutor, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he had completed a year earlier. With this work Pedro had probably aimed to turn the classical theme of a nymph from Greek mythology into a Brazilian theme. The work received a Gold medal and Pedro decided that he would give the painting to the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who had agreed to fund his training in Europe. His gift however was not well received by the court officials who were shocked by the full frontal nudity and they considered the painting to be shockingly immoral and not fit for the walls of the palace. The painting was returned to Pedro Américo, who had by then moved to Florence. The painting was eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia. In 1882, almost twenty years later, Pedro Américo painted another version of the work, which he completed in 1882, and which is shown above. This work is housed at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio.
Another of his paintings in a classical style was one he completed in 1884, which is entitled Moisés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed). The painting is based on the Old Testament story of Jochebed, who was the mother of Moses and her dilemma regarding the news that the Egyptian Pharaoh, being afraid that the Jews in his country would one day join a foreign army and rise up against the Egyptians, ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed. Jochebed had just given birth to a son, Moses, whom she believed was going to be murdered, and so took a basket and coated the bottom with tar, to make it waterproof. Then she put the baby in it and set it among the reeds on the bank of the River Nile. The story goes on to tell that at that same time, the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river and one of her maidservants saw the basket and brought it to her. In the painting we see mother standing by the river with her baby, agonizing over decision.
After time spent in Italy, Pedro Américo returned to Rio in 1864 and took up the post as the Chair of Drawing at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes. However the following year he had once again left Brazil and was to be found in Europe. This time he had set up home in Brussels and attended the University where he gained a Doctorate of Science in 1868.
The following year Pedro Américo set off to return to Brazil but made a stop-over in Lisbon where he stayed at the home of one of his former tutors, Manuel de Araujo Porto Alegre. A year on, Pedro was still in Lisbon and was now married to his host’s daughter, Carlota. The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Carlota and a son, Eduardo. The couple returned to Rio in 1870, where he once again gave lectures at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes. The subject of his lectures included aesthetics, archaeology and the history of art. As another way of earning money he also provided caricatures for the satirical magazine, A Comédia Social (The Social Comedy). He completed a number of portraiture commissions including one of Emperor Dom Pedro II completed in 1872, entitled, Speech from the Throne.
He continued to paint historical works including the large painting (332cms x 550cms) Batalha de Campo Grande in 1871 which is housed in the Imperial Museum at Petrópolis, a city, north west of Rio. The Emperor and his government were so pleased with the finished work that they made Pedro Américo Pintor Histórico da Real Câmara (Historical Painter of the Royal Chamber) and this led to him being commissioned to paint a historical work depicting a battle scene. The battle scene he chose to depict was one which took place close to the River Avai and was a battle between the Triple Alliance forces (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) and those of Paraguay. His fellow artist Victor Meirelles had been commissioned, at the same time, to paint another scene from this six-year long war (Battle of Guararapes) – see my previous blog.
Pedro Américo accepted the commission but decided that he needed time away from his homeland in order to concentrate on the commission. He and his wife left Brazil and travelled to Florence. The Italian government provided him with a studio in a room at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata, and it was here he remained for three years whilst he concentrated on the monumental historical work. Pedro Américo completed the war scene which was entitled Battle of Avai in 1877 and it was exhibited in the Italian city in the presence of the Brazilian emperor, Pedro II. The painting was then shipped to Rio de Janeiro where it was exhibited at the Exposicao Geral de Belas Artes the annual exhibition of the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes. The exhibited work met with mixed reviews. Most loved it and were in awe of its size but there were a few detractors who accused Pedro Américo of plagiarism as they believed the work was too similar to a battle scene depiction entitled Battle of Montebelo. Notwithstanding the adverse comments, Pedro Américo’s battle scene is an amazing work of art. This monumental painting measures 600cms x 1100cms (almost 20ft high and 36ft wide). It is a monster of a painting, full of detail and one’s eyes dart from place to place on the canvas to try and take in all the details.
Standing in the long room at the museum one can see the two monumental paintings depicting battles during the Paraguayan War by Victor Meirelles and Pedro Américo almost side by side. It is an amazing spectacle.
In 1879 Pedro Américo completed another painting based on an Old Testament story. It was about the elderly King David. In the book of 1 Kings verse 1-4, it is written:
“…When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. 2 So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.”
3 Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. 4 The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no sexual relations with her…”
In November 1889, Dom Pedro II’s reign came to an end with a military coup. The Empire was dead and from the ashes of the Empire rose the Republic of Brazil. It was a time of reform. It was a time when those who had been close to the Emperor were ostracised as a consequences of such an association. Like my previous featured artist, Victor Meirelles, who like Pedro Américo had been a favourite of the Emperor and closely associated with the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, he was dismissed from his post. Later however Pedro was elected a member of parliament for Paraíba but due to the onset of ill health rarely attended meetings. For health reasons he left Rio in 1894 and returned to Florence where he lived out his days and as well as painting found time to write two novels. He died in October 1905 aged 62.