Biography of Victor Meirelles and analysis of the work “The First Mass in Brazil”

The first mass in Brazil, held on April 26, 1500, just four days after the Portuguese landed in Porto Seguro, was depicted by Victor Meirelles between 1859 and 1861, while the artist was living in Paris.

The painting was inspired by the letter written by Pero Vaz de Caminha to the king of Portugal, considered to be the most important historical document about the discovery of Brazil.

The work, which is part of the National Museum of Fine Arts, has become one of the most popular paintings in the country.

Primeira Missa no Brasil (Victor Meirelles)
“The First Mass in Brazil” (Victor Meirelles)

Biography of Victor Meirelles and analysis of the work “The First Mass in Brazil”

The author and painter Victor Meirelles of “The First Mass in Brazil” was born in Desterro, now Florianópolis, capital of the state of Santa Catarina, in August 1832, in the house that is now a museum and on the street that today bears his name.

His early interest in learning the craft of painting, a skill he began to develop as a boy living on his native island, is well known among us.

That’s why, at the age of 14, he was taken to Rio de Janeiro to join the group of students at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, where he began a career of study that led him to win the Prize for a Trip to Europe, to the main artistic centers of the time, in Italy and France.

The painting “First Mass in Brazil”, considered a “masterpiece” in the history of national art, was produced in Paris, during the artist’s long study trip (1853-1861) as a scholarship student at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.

Victor Meirelles was a humanist linked to Romanticism, a great researcher, an attentive observer, a scholar, dedicated, disciplined and unquestionably committed to his time. He was the first Brazilian to exhibit at the Official Salon in Paris in 1861, where he represented his country with the painting “First Mass in Brazil”.

It is worth noting that, even when he was in Paris, Victor Meirelles was in constant communication with the professors of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Brazil, especially Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre.

Victor was thus fulfilling one of the requirements of the country that supported his stay in France.

Although he studied with masters from the First World, he remained under the tutelage and command of the Academy in Brazil and was therefore also subject to the ideas it articulated with the country’s political and cultural elite, including Emperor Pedro Segundo and the IHGB group.

Victor Meirelles e a análise da obra "A Primeira Missa no Brasil" 

As such, we understand that it was mainly the culture of his country of origin that determined his way of thinking and, consequently, of painting.

The “First Mass in Brazil” is the result of a complex network of relationships between the ideas and utopias that developed within the so-called “Civilizing Project”, present in the imagination of the cultural and political elite of the Brazilian 19th century.

This project became more evident, directly or indirectly, with the transfer of the Portuguese Court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, and was consolidated with the monarchies that followed later (1822-1889).

With the arrival of the Court, Rio de Janeiro modernized and gradually lost its colonial aspect.

A secular, worldly, courtly and aristocratic culture developed around it.

The Court entertained with bullfights, cavalcades, theaters, soirees and musicals.

It was against this backdrop that the country’s first art academy emerged.

It was due to political changes between Portugal and France, as part of a strategy to bring the two countries closer together, that the idea of bringing a French Artistic Mission to Brazil emerged in 1816, with the aim of institutionalizing artistic teaching in Brazil.

This was later consolidated in 1826 with the creation of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro.

The “First Mass in Brazil”, before being the isolated production of an artist, is a visual synthesis of the nationalist “Civilizing Project” of the Second Empire.

Therefore, to understand this painting it is necessary to go to that context.

The country was establishing itself as an independent nation. Thought was being given to creating a national identity, and art was considered a privileged place to think about society and to invent a new identity.

The Fine Arts were an instrument of civilization and glory, having the power to contribute to the education of peoples, with the capacity to interfere directly in reality.

The idea of art linked to pedagogy and civilization was very much in line with the civilizing project of the young nation, which had been independent since 1822.

In order to understand the context from which Victor Meirelles’ painting “First Mass in Brazil” emerges, amidst the problems of the Second Empire, it is also necessary to understand the issues surrounding the legitimization of this “Civilization Project” on a general international level.

The tropical monarchy would have found it difficult to legitimize its power in the eyes of the world, which implies, among other things, the creation, ostentation and wide dissemination of the icons it created.

Surrounded by republics, the Brazilian monarchical model faced obstacles to its recognition, both by the other American nations and by the difficult communication with European countries.

One must consider the internal effort to dissociate the Brazilian image from the idea of anarchy, associated with a persistent slave system on which Brazilian society and economy were structured.

From the first years of independence, there was a clear effort to disseminate and create an image that was both common and peculiar to this distant empire.

There was no clear awareness of the difficulties of transposing models imported from countries like France to Brazil, a country in formation.

Brazil was made up of a culturally and artistically uncomplex society, whose intellectual elite, seduced by European culture, could not realize how problematic it was for this culture to take root and develop freely in a society that was still growing.

The way to understand this period is certainly not through simple and quick answers.

We can look for elements of reflection in the hypothesis that the country sought to assert itself in the models it already knew and was aware were more advanced.

On the other hand, there was a distressing question among the civilizing ideas, a question that has continued to motivate national cultural and artistic movements throughout history: after all, what is Brazilian?

During the 19th century, there was a general desire to assert oneself to the capitalist world, to be modern, to take part in the path of progress, to become a great nation, to dispel the image of tropical exoticism, backwardness and inertia.

In order to understand why, at times of change, certain symbols succeed and others don’t, we must look not only at the issuing but also at the dissemination, in other words, the consumption of these symbols.

D. Pedro II, the first monarch born in Brazil, was emperor from 1840 to 1889 and became the main patron of the Romantic movement.

In the iconography that is most noticeable is the use of a symbolism characteristic of this monarchy, loaded with signs of a dialog with external (European) reality, without, however, failing to denounce singular local (national) characteristics.

Fertile in the production of images, the Brazilian Empire excelled in its role as creator of national icons, including anthems, medals, emblems, couplets and coats of arms, among which it is possible to include the “First Mass in Brazil” as part of the official iconography.

The Brazilian Indian and the Romantic movement

It is in the Romantic literary movement that we find the figure of the Indian taking shape from 1826, when the Frenchman Ferdinand Diniz, a consular employee, drew the attention of Brazilians to the need to replace classical tendencies in favor of local characteristics.

He advocated the description of nature and customs, in which the Indian should be valued as the first and most authentic inhabitant of Brazil.

The romantic literati lived together with the historians of the IHGB and the professors and directors of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, including Manoel de Araújo Porto Alegre, who had a strong relationship with the creation of the painting “First Mass in Brazil”.

It was in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century that Brazil saw the rise of Romanticism, whose manifestation, considered to be the most genuinely national, Indianism, had the greatest prestige, reaching, in addition to poetry and romance, music and painting.

The Indianists gained popularity for their romantic representation of the Indian as a national symbol.

Thus, the history of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and the production of its students cannot be dissociated from the larger significance of the Empire.

This story has yet to be better told, especially with regard to the existence of a civilizing project associated with the construction of the state and the nation.

The painting “First Mass in Brazil”

A symbolic image of Brazilian culture, the “First Mass in Brazil”, as well as its numerous preparatory studies, today form part of the collections of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro under tomb no. 901.

The painting of the “First Mass in Brazil” was produced during the Empire of Dom Pedro II, in France, between 1859 and 1860, arriving in Brazil in 1861.

It is this environment that I intend to start reconstructing, aware that understanding the spirit of Brazil in the Second Empire is not easy.

Where can we look for the presence of common elements that justify the birth of a repertoire of images and icons such as the “First Mass in Brazil”, within this context?

There was a need, among other things, for the creation and dissemination of icons.

The “First Mass in Brazil”, one of these icons, is undoubtedly one of the most important masterpieces of Brazilian painting of all time!

Masterpieces condense the sensibilities of an era and fully express its tendencies and ideals.

At the same time as they embody the values of a community, they are inconceivable without that community.

In it, the artist did more than any single person could do: he used the intuitions and achievements of others, combining them in a new way, which allowed him to speak on behalf of an entire generation.

This image, along with other national emblems and symbols, has contributed to the formation of the idea we have of ourselves as Brazilians, which belongs to the mythical, silent and invisible field of the Founding Myth of Brazil.

Created by European conquerors and appropriated by Brazilian Romanticism, the old myth continues to be reinvented among us.

It is also important to highlight the role of the “First Mass in Brazil” in the construction of a representation of the “Discovery” and the Brazilian identity linked to Catholicism and the sense of conversion that Portuguese navigation brought with it, which amplifies the importance of this painting in the construction of our cultural imaginary.

The Imperial Academy of Fine Arts

The French Artistic Mission arrived in the country in March 1816, at the invitation and by arrangement of the Portuguese Court in Brazil.

It was made up of a group of artists and masters of crafts, almost all former Bonapartists, who came to introduce the academic teaching of arts and crafts in the Brazil of King João VI.

Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre, from Rio Grande do Sul; Victor Meirelles de Lima, from Santa Catarina; Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Melo, from Paraíba, José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, from São Paulo, among others, were sent to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

The works of these artists reflect the academic spirit of the time, focused on classical idealism and the masters consecrated by the academies of Rome and Paris.

Emperor Pedro II maintained contact with the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts during his long reign.

Dom Pedro II - Victor Meirelles
Dom Pedro II – Victor Meirelles

Undertaking a policy similar to the IHGB, the Emperor began to hand out prizes, medals, scholarships abroad and funding, as well as participating assiduously in the General Exhibitions of Fine Arts, which were held annually, or awarding insignia of the Orders of Christ and the Rose to the most outstanding artists.

In 1845, D. Pedro began to pay for the annual Travel Prize, which financed the Academy’s students’ studies abroad.

The Emperor was given the title of Founder and Perpetual Protector of the Imperial Academy; protecting the Academy and its artists was also a way of guaranteeing the production of official iconography.

From the Academy and its artists, in addition to the painting “First Mass in Brazil”, came the countless portraits, family scenes and scenes of power of the Royal Family that still illustrate our history today.

Historical painting was the most valued genre at the Academy in the mid-19th century, as Jorge Coli (1998: 117) explains.

Meirelles achieved the rare convergence of forms, intentions and meanings that make a painting enter powerfully into a culture.

This image of the discovery can hardly be erased or replaced. It is the first mass in Brazil.

These are the powers of art fabricating history.

The art teaching model that Brazil imported was the only one that was current in the country of origin at the time of its importation into Brazil.

Therefore, neoclassicism, through which the artists of the French Artistic Mission expressed themselves when they came here to organize our first art school, was the avant-garde style at the time.

The development of Brazilian painting began to take off in 1840, when the first General Exhibition of Fine Arts was held.

It was against this backdrop that the artist Victor Meirelles de Lima, the son of Portuguese immigrants from the city of Desterro, now Florianópolis, appeared among the students in 1847.

If, on the one hand, the Academy taught them the traditional grammar of the plastic arts, on the other, they came from a society with no tradition of expressing itself through the erudite forms of the Academy, where, more by intuition than training, they began to distrust the repetition of mythological and biblical scenes provided by the teaching models.

The teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts and the country’s government were waiting for talent to emerge.

Everything was closely monitored by the Emperor, who became honorary president of the IHGB.

Ever since he was a boy of 14, he had followed everything closely.

Before Victor Meirelles, the Academy sent other artists to Europe on scholarships, but they produced little and soon returned.

The first to be seen in the documents and who was aware of what was going on was the painter Victor Meirelles.

He went to Europe and complied with the demands of the Imperial Academy in Brazil with the obligations expected of him.

While other artists sent a drawing or two, Victor Meirelles sent ten or twenty.

So the Emperor and the Academy’s intellectuals felt that they had found the artist they were looking for. And that’s why Victor Meirelles got his scholarship extended for eight years.

The normal period was only three years.

When Victor Meirelles was in France, the director of the Academy in Brazil worked closely with Emperor Pedro II.

They held a weekly meeting where they discussed the academic progress of their students and other issues.

Once the first draft of the “Mass” had been made, Victor Meirelles sent it to the Academy in Brazil.

The cultural elite wanted to create this kind of image to remain in the country’s cultural memory.

Therefore, once the sketch of the “First Mass in Brazil” had been accepted, the painter received funding for a further two-year stay in France and for the costs of executing the work.

In Paris he was helped by Ferdinand Denis, a man who had lived in Brazil during the time of King João VI, who loved it here and remained a Brazilianist for the rest of his life.

He was then the director of the Library of Saint Genoieve, which still exists today in Paris.

It was in the Library of Santa Genoviève that Victor Meirelles analyzed the documentation on the Indian and on Brazil, and where he also found the letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha, which they had discovered a little earlier.

Victor Meirelles studied the letter intently to represent the mass described by Caminha. 

Before being the product of the isolated mind of an artist, the “First Mass in Brazil” is a visual synthesis of the nationalist civilizing project of the Second Brazilian Empire, and Victor Meirelles de Lima was the man who made the ideas of this project a reality in the form of a painting.

If, on the one hand, the artist painted the ideas of the political and cultural body of Brazil in the mid-19th century, made concrete by the rigor of the artistic techniques he learned at the art academies he attended and by his fidelity to historical painting itself, on the other hand, he had “help” that was so close we could call it “other hands”.

Among these, the main one was Manoel de Araújo Porto Alegre. A nationalist, he was also a student of Debret, at the Imperial Academy, in the period leading up to Brazil’s independence.

He was professor and director of the Imperial Academy during the period when Victor Meirelles left for Europe.

He exchanged curious correspondence with the artist, in which he gave detailed guidance on his studies. He spoke on behalf of the Emperor and the Academic Body.

Although all the correspondence between the two is not published, we can see from what we have available how this exchange of information was not only academic, but also in a climate of trust, understanding and encouragement.

In it, Victor was instructed in the composition of his first major original work.

As state pensioners, the artists awarded the Travel Prize were subject to strict legislation, which required them to carry out a series of tasks and obligations to ensure the success and maintenance of the grant.

Among these tasks was the regular submission of works made abroad.

The production of these works of art was determined by the Congregation of the School in Brazil. In order to guarantee the maintenance of this symbolic field, no deviation from this doctrinal line was allowed, under penalty of immediate suspension of funding for their stay outside the country.

Following Porto Alegre’s instructions, Victor Meirelles left for a first stay in Italy, then on to France, where he was tutored by Leon Cogniet, a professor at the School of Fine Arts in Paris.

This school, in the 19th century, was a prestigious institution, considered the heir to the Imperial Academy, created in 1684 to protect France’s artistic elite from the tyrannical rules imposed on them by the artisans’ guilds – the Grégées.

Victor Meirelles also produced his “First Mass” obeying the demanding gaze of the jury at the Paris Salon Officiel in 1861, in which he took part.

As well as studying Pero Vaz Caminha’s letter and following the detailed guidance of Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre, there is another important fact to consider in the construction of the work in question: Victor Meirelles sought inspiration for the main scene of his work in another mass, that of the French painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863).

Première messe en Kabyli
Première messe en Kabyli” (1853) – French painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863)

The mass painted by Vernet is entitled “Première messe en Kabyli” (1853), reminding us that the procedure by quotation is absolutely legitimate within the genre of Historical Painting.

The lack of knowledge of the rules of historical painting by national art critics caused great controversy when the painting arrived in Brazil, and Victor Meirelles was even accused of being a plagiarist.

There is also the hypothesis that the theme of the mass was recurrent at the time.

In the Granet Museum in Provence, France, we found another mass entitled “Une messe au Louvre pendant la Terreur”, dated 1847, by Marius Granet (1775-1849).

The altar in the center, with a priest raising the host and another on his knees holding his vestments, is reminiscent of the main scene in Victor Meirelles’ “Mass”.

This procedure would also have been legitimate within the aesthetic cultural context of the 19th century art academies.

The art academies are a model of artistic institution that is little known and, perhaps for this reason, little valued.

Surrounded by prejudices since the advent of modern art, they have been reduced simply to regressive institutions, coercive of the freedom of artistic creation and official regulation of taste.

However, these institutions were born with the aim of fulfilling certain needs of the time, including those of the artists, who were then subject to the Guilds – guilds loaded with medieval connotations and representative of the trades characterized as mechanical.

Brazilian academic painting in the 19th century was not exclusively neoclassical, as is generally recognized, as it was influenced by French academic Romanticism, better known as “Pompierism”.

Referred to by historian Jorge Coli as “the right form” to achieve the work’s staying power, the appropriate formal means could only come from Historical Painting.

The origins of this genre can be traced back to the painting teaching system of the Art Academies.

On these aspects, Reyero (1989:16) states:

Students were obliged to go through competitions where the jury imposed each year the title that each participant had to perform.
perform. History was therefore the result of a rigorous academic exercise, which only a few managed to overcome.

The First Mass in Brazil also refers to the presence of the Founding Myth of Brazil, ideologically appropriated by Brazilian Romanticism, which contributes to the construction of our identity as members of a nation, creating contradictory truths about who we are and what others think about us.

Utopias that come from as far back as the Renaissance, from the imagery of navigators, and that reappear ideologically in the images produced by artists in the 19th century.

Abandoned and discriminated against by the Republicans, Victor Meirelles died poor in 1903, in Rio de Janeiro.

If throughout history there have been men and women who have dedicated themselves to building icons for their people, Victor did so in his own time and, if he did so, he was supported by a unique and specific cultural and historical context.

Victor is undoubtedly one of the greatest names in national art.

We know, however, that his merit and value have not always been recognized. “It is, however, comforting to know that his hometown has never forgotten him, just as he has never forgotten his peaceful and beautiful hometown.”

Victor Meirelles’ paintings

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