Earliest known examples of “Brazilian” art were actually paintings of Edenic landscapes done by European artists who were fascinated by the new colony’s profusion of exotica. When the Dutch occupied Pernambuco in the mid-1600s, artists Frans Post and Albert Eckout were assigned to dutifully register the native flora and fauna as well as indigenous inhabitants. Widely reproduced in Europe, their portraits constituted the first images of the American continent painted by artists of some renown.
For the next three centuries, artists in Brazil  devoured styles that were in vogue in Europe. Although some did so mimetically, others “tropicalized” these styles, giving them a unique “Brazilianness.” The most remarkable instance of this tendency occurred with the rise of Barroco Mineiro that developed in 18th-century Minas Gerais during its massive gold boom. Magnificent churches were built using local materials and decorated in a baroque style whose details, colors, and excessive flourishes were unique in reflecting their tropical surroundings. The two major figures of Barroco Mineiro were master builder and sculptor Aleijadinho and the painter Athayde, whose works are spread throughout the cidades históricas of Ouro Preto, Mariana, Tiradentes, and São João del Rei.
In the mid-19th century, Brazil’s independence coincided with the flourishing of a romantic style of painting that saw artists such as Victor Meireles and Pedro Amérigo portraying national heroes and historic events in epic style. In terms of architecture, the sobriety and elegance of French neoclassicism held sway in the capital of Rio de Janeiro , where grand monuments such as the Teatro Municipal , the Biblioteca Nacional , and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes  aspired to conjure up a tropical version of Baron Haussman’s Paris. In the early 20th century, a flirtation with Art Nouveau gave way to art deco in the ’30s and ’40s. You’ll see some glorious examples of art deco in Rio (particularly in Copacabana ) as well as most other large cities.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that Brazilian artists consciously broke with European traditions in the pursuit of art that was typically Brazilian. Led by Oswald and Mário de Andrade, in 1920, the Semana de Arte Moderna de São Paulo created an artistic manifesto and shocked the conservative elite by severing ties with academic, European schools. Brazilian modernists such as Anita Malfatti, Emiliano di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral, Victor Brecheret, and Lasar Segall were the leading painters and sculptors that emerged from the Semana de Arte Moderna.
Espousing a philosophy of national art and culture that revolved around the notion of antropofagia (or cannibalism), they created works that, while fed by what was going on in Europe, were also nourished by themes, forms, and subject matter that were distinctly Brazilian. The generation of artists that followed them (painters Alberto de Veiga Guignard, Cândido Portinari, Flávio de Carvalho, and Cícero Dias and sculptors Maria Martins, Bruno Giorgi, and Alfredo Ceschiatti) continued to explore the notion of Brazilian Modernism.
While each artist followed his or her own individual path, many contributed their talents to adorning public buildings, particularly the government buildings of the new capital of Brasília, today considered the greatest modernist ensemble in the world. Designed by leading architects Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília  was modeled after Le Corbusier’s ideals of functional, pared-down structures with glossy surfaces and plenty of windows that emphasized natural lighting. Niemeyer, however, softened the rigid, box-like linearity of the style by adding sweeping curves that reflected the sensuality and natural forms so characteristic of Brazil.
Other important contributors to Brazilian modernist architecture include Afonso Eduardo Reidy (who designed Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna ), Lina Bo Bardi (creator of São Paulo’s iconic MASP ), and renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was responsible for countless public gardens throughout the country.
In 1951, the first Bienal de Artes Plásticas de São Paulo was held in the newly built Pavilhão de Artes in Parque do Ibirapuera . Over time, the event has grown into one of the most important biennials in the art world. The ’50s coincided with major experiments in abstract and concrete art carried out by leading figures such as Lygia Pape, Amilcar de Castro, Iberê Camargo, and Lygia Clark.
In the ’60s, Clark, along with provocative and crazily talented Hélio Oiticica, began creating vanguard art installations that focused on relationships between objects and the space around them. The iconic example of this period was Oiticica’s famous parangolé, a cape-like work of “wearable art” made famous by the fact that musician and writer Caetano Veloso wore one during the height of Tropicália.
Keeping up with trends in other parts of the world, contemporary Brazilian art has been marked by the successive rise of Pop, installation, performance, video, and digital art. Today, names such as Cildo Meireles, Adriana Varejão, Vic Muniz, Sérgio Camargo, Jac Leirner, and Beatriz Milhazes are internationally renowned figures, and their works are included in leading museums and galleries.
Although characterized by hits and misses, contemporary architecture—some of the best examples of which can be seen in São Paulo —has also stayed true to the precepts of “cannibalism,” with names such as Isay Weinfeid, Ruy Ohtake, Márcio Kogan, and Marcelo Ferraz creating works that bridge cutting-edge universal technology and tendencies with a valorization of local aesthetics and materials.