José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior (8 May 1850 - 13 November 1899) was a major Brazilian painter whose works became a source of inspiration for subsequent modernists. As a painter, he defied the popular traditions of his contemporaries and carved a new niche for himself. At a time when his fellow painters were achieving fame by painting mythological and historical subjects, he decided to focus on reality and portray the beauty of rural life. The subjects he chose to paint were an unchartered territory, but his skill ensured that the gamble paid off.
The audiences were simply bowled over by his paintings of farmers and workers and other rural folk amidst their daily lives. His works came to be admired for its meticulous detail and touching images. Inspired by the French realist and naturalist paintings, he soon became the leading light in Brazil’s realist painting scene.
Almeida Junior was born in the little town of Itu, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 8 May 1850. His father, Miguel Correa P, was a priest at the Church of Our Lady of Candelaria. His father was his earliest and strongest supporter who encouraged him to lead an artistic career. As a young boy, he worked as a bell ringer in his father’s church where he created some paintings on sacred themes. When he was 19 years old, his father organized a fundraising, so that the young artist could go to Rio de Janeiro and complete his studies.
Thus, in 1869, Almeida Junior enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, where he trained under Jules Le Chevrel, Victor Meirelles and Pedro Americo. Almeida excelled in art at the institute. He received many awards for figurative drawing and painting historical and living model. The highlight was of course, the gold medal, which he received for his painting “Resurrection of the Lord” in 1874. After completing his course, he had two choices - either he could go on a travel award to Europe or return to his home. He chose the latter, returning to Itu. There he set up a studio beginning his work as a portraitist. He also became a teacher of drawing.
In 1876, the Emperor Peter II made a trip to Sao Paulo. There he saw the works of Almeida and was so impressed that he agreed to fund his trip to Europe for further studies. During March, the following year, a credit was opened at the Imperial House for 300 francs for the painter, who went to study in Paris in November. He enrolled there at the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts, where he distinguished himself in anatomical drawings and ornaments. Between 1879-1882, Almeida participated in four editions of the Paris Salon. He created several masterpieces during his time in France such as ‘Brazilian and Remorse of Judas’ (1880), ‘The Flight into Egypt’ (1881), ‘The Rest of the Model’ (1882) and a set of sixteen paintings documenting the neighborhood of Montmartre. In 1882, he went on a brief visit to Italy. There he met the brothers Rudolf and Henry Bernardelli.During his stay in France, the Impressionist Movement was at his height, but his works barely reflects any influence of this. Instead, his works were mostly inspired by the French naturalist and realist paintings, in which he clearly excelled.
Almeida stayed in Paris until 1882 and then came back to Brazil. Here, he opened his first solo exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition displayed some of the works that he did in Paris. The following year, he opened a studio on the streets of Glory in Sao Paulo. This studio later became a base for a new generation of Brazilian painters like Pedro Alexandrino. He painted on diverse themes like landscapes and Genre paintings, portraits of coffee barons and teachers and supporters of the Republican Movement. He also held exclusive viewings of his paintings for potential buyers and the press. He enjoyed enormous fame and became a celebrated artist.
In 1884, he again submitted his paintings that he did in Paris at the 26th General Exhibition of Fine Arts of AIBA, which was considered to be the most important exhibition of the Imperial period. The art critic, Duque Estrada, praised his show and said that he is one of the best painters to express clarity and sharpness of a Breton style.In 1884, the Imperial Government awarded him the title of the Knight of the Rose. Victor Meirelles also invited him, to replace him as professor of history painting at the Academy but Almeida refused. Instead, he remained in Sao Paulo to continue painting at his studio. Almeida went on three trips to Europe between 1887-1896 in company of his pupil, Peter Alexandrino, who had received a scholarship from the government of Sao Paulo.
After his move from Paris to Brazil, Almeida’s style of painting gradually began to evolve. While his early work was dominated by historical and biblical themes, he progressed to depicting regional themes, which is what confirmed his position as a precursor of Realism in Brazilian art. He adopted a natural pictorial approach, painting the daily life of the everyday man in his country’s interior. Paintings like “Stinging Smoke Grit” (1893), “Nuisance”, “Interrupted” (1894) and “Guitarist” (1899) show his desire to get further away from academic painting. His new style was very appreciated by the critics and one of his paintings, the ‘Departure of the Monsoon’, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1898, was honored with a gold medal.
Almeida Junior maintained a secret relationship with Laura Maria Gurgel do Amaral, who was the wife of his cousin. On 13 November 1899, when he was outside the Hotel Central in Piracicaba, Jose de Almeida Sampaio, his cousin and husband of Laura fatally stabbed him.
José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior is considered one of the most important painters of Brazil. May 8, his birthday, is celebrated in Brazil as ‘Artist’s Day’.He is also sometimes declared as the ‘national painter’ of Brazil. His works, which mostly depicted the rustic life of Sao Paulo, without being overtly romantic or using jingoistic tones, portraying them simply as human beings, enjoyed enormous popularity among both the public and critics. Because of this, he has also been likened to the French artist, Gustave Courbet. He was also a major influence to many modernist painters.