Francisco Arturo Michelena Castillo was born on June 16, 1863 in Valencia, Venezuela. He was the son of the painter Juan Antonio Michelena, who would become his teacher. Between 1869 and 1871, he studied at the Lisandro Ramírez School in Valencia, and later at the Colegio Cajigal whose director was Alejo Zuloaga, the future rector of the University of Valencia. Between 1874 and 1877, Michelena received his first drawing lessons from his father. He produced portraits, drawings of horses and his first self-portrait. He traveled to Caracas and met the writer Francisco de Sales Pérez, his mentor and patron who commissioned the illustrations for his book Costumbres venezolanas (Venezuelan Traditions). In 1879 Michelena and his father opened a painting school in Valencia. During this period, Michelena made ink drawings of popular Valencian types that would be used as decorations for cigar boxes. Towards 1880-1882 he began a series of children's portraits and eight medallion-shaped oil paintings meant as decorations for Valencia's Hotel Normadie. In 1883 he took part in the Great National Exhibition of Venezuela to commemorate the Centennial of the Birth of Simón Bolívar producing two works: Alegoría de la República regenerada (Allegory of the Regenerated Republic) and La entrega de la bandera invencible de Numancia al batallón sin nombre (Surrender of the Invincible Flag of Numancia to the Nameless Batallion). In 1885 he finished the painting El general Joaquín Crespo en la Batalla de La Victoria (General Joaquin Crespo at the Battle of La Victoria). He received a scholarship to study in Europe and left for Paris along with Martín Tovar y Tovar, enrolling in the Académie Julian training with the painter Jean-Paul Laurens, who specialized in historical painting and would exert a great influence on the work of Michelena and his fellow students Emilio Boggio and Cristóbal Rojas. Although he returned from Europe for a short time in 1890, he moved permanently to Venezuela in 1893 and shortly after, painted his best known work, Miranda en la Carraca (Miranda in La Carraca) in 1897. He died in Caracas from tuberculosis at the age of 35.
The theme of cupids, angels, and putti is a characteristic of genre painting which originated in the Italian Renaissance and developed in the Baroque up until the nineteenth century in France with the academic school. Trained as a painter in France in the academic school, Michelena assimilated the thematic elements of the day and incorporated them into his iconographic thematic repertoire. The recurrence of allegorical themes is frequent in Michelena's work, particularly following the first stages of his painting career in France between 1885-1889. An emblematic work of this period is Pentesilea (Penthesilea) from 1891. Subsequently, in Venezuela, he produced other works with mythological themes such as Diana Cazadora (Diana the Huntress), 1896, among others. The theme of children and childhood is similarly recurrent in Michelena's work, an example of which is the painting of the Morochos Aguerrevere (The Aguerrevere Dark-Skinned Boys), which bears an obvious thematic resemblance to the work in question.
This painting by Michelena is characteristic of his late oeuvre, when the artist produced a great number of commissioned works in a very free style, almost impressionistic, which oscillates between light genre themes such as children, still lives, or landscapes and religious themes. It could also be a sketch for a detail in a larger-scale work or possibly a mural decoration. However, at the moment we know of no other work with this same scene of chlidren playing with a basket. The theme of children and childhood and allegorical scenes, clearly depicted in the detail of the trumpet in this work are very close to the artist's sensibility, as is the treatment of brushstrokes and color. We should also note that in this work, the artist's emblematic use of colors such as sky blue and vermillion--blue is present almost throughout the entire piece and red is present locally to highlight the flowers in the basket--are employed. All these elements are part of Michelena's signature; in almost all of his works he used an element of the red color in order to achieve and energize the work's chromatic balance. This characteristic links him to the tradition of his teacher, Jean-Paul Laurens, although I would argue that, on the contrary, Michelena gradually moved away from academic painting towards the end of his life, making evident his visionary calling to modernism. This characteristic is clearly reflected in the piece which is the focus of this essay and a remarkable note within the artist's entire production.
Lic. Alejandro Oramas Maza.
Art Historian and Former Director of the Michelena Museum, Caracas, Venezuela.