Arturo Michelena (1863 -1898), born in Valencia, Venezuela was a visual artist, who is among the most important and influential Venezuelan painters of the 19th century, along with Cristóbal Rojas (1857–1890), Antonio Herrera Toro (1857-1914) and Martín Tovar y Tovar (1827–1902).
Michelena began to paint at a young age under his father’s tutelage. He painted his self-portrait when he was 11. At that time, he was also designated by the writer Francisco de Sales Pérez to illustrate his book “Costumbres Venezolanas” (1877). Later, he received lessons from a French artist, Constance de Sauvage, who was a disciple of the French painter Eugene Deveria. She taught him to better distribute the colors and to better use light.
Between 1879 and 1882, along with his father, he opened an Academy of Arts in Valencia. Wall paintings, copies of old paintings, children’s portraits and high production drawings form the basis of training that enable Michelena to compete successfully in the Hall of the Centenary of the Birth of the Liberator Simon Bolivar. In fact, Michelena’s first major artwork, “La Entrega de la Bandera al Batallón sin Nombre” (1883), received top honors at this event.
In 1885, Michelena traveled to Paris, accompanied by Martin Tovar y Tovar, to enroll at the Julian Academy, where he studied under the direction of Jean-Paul Laurens. His first great success occurred in Paris at Le Salon des Artistes Français in 1887, when Michelena presented an artwork titled “El Niño Enfermo” (1886) which was awarded the Gold Medal, second class, the highest honor a foreign artist could receive at the salon. Michelena was the first Venezuelan painter to succeed abroad.
Between 1885 and 1889, Michelena painted multiple works including, “Una Visita Electoral” (1886), “La Caridad” (1887), “La Joven Madre” and “Charlotte Corday” (1889) – all acclaimed works. In 1891, Michelena participated in the Salon des Champs Elysees in Paris, with the painting “Pentesilea” (1891) – which received the distinction of being placed in the Hall of Honor.
Having contracted tuberculosis, Michelena to Venezuela, concentrating his efforts on what would be his last works. Among these were, “Miranda en La Carraca” (1896). Other works that Michelena created upon his return to Venezuela were “La Muerte de Sucre en Berruecos” (1895) and “Descendimiento” (1897). Several of his works were unfinished, as “La Última Cena” (1898).
Michelena was a masterful artist who presented the iconography of Venezuela through heroes, landscapes, environments and customs. In his works he identified, not only the everyday life of the working class, but reflected the national history and, thereby, strengthened the identity of Venezuelan society.
So what was Michelena’s impact on society? Through his work he profoundly demonstrated the political and economic situation of Venezuela.
Romero Martinez, Vinicio (1987). Mis Mejores Amigos. Caracas. Editorial Larense, C.A.