(Campinas, SP, 1874 - Rio de Janeiro RJ, 1941)

by Angela Arena

In 1905, the sculptor Nicolina Vaz de Assis was immortalized by the portrait made by the painter Eliseu Visconti [Figura 1] that, being exhibited in the Salon of the same year, was considered a masterpiece and, according to the critics, captured with sensibility the “spirit” of the sitter, more than her physical traits, for in it the Sculptor Nicolina is portrayed. That proves that we were in front of an artist that had conquered an uncommon reputation in the world of Brazilian arts.

Nicolina Vaz de Assis Pinto do Couto, one of the first Brazilian sculptors, was born in Campinas in December 18, 1874, and at 16 years old married with the physician Benigno de Assis. There are no records of her beginning in the arts; what one knows is that in 1897, she won from the São Paulo State Government a scholarship to study and to improve upon in Rio de Janeiros School of Fine Arts, today the present National Museum of Fine Arts. The reason for this invitation came from the fame attained by some of her works made still in her hometown city, when she starts to sculpt statues and busts of posthumous character as commissions from families.

To Rio de Janeiro came, to attend classes at the National School of Fine Arts, the Eminent Mrs. Nicolina Vaz de Assis, who exhibited some time ago in this capital several works of sculpture, among them a bust of the Eminent Mr. Dr. Campos Salles.

The distinguished Paulista deserved from Rodolfo Bernadelli an honored certificate related to the time in which she was his disciple, in which the notable Brazilian sculptor says that Mrs. Nicolina is [have] a rare artistic vocation.

In order to follow her studies, our fellow countrywoman was granted an allowance by the government of the São Paulo State.

That her efforts be crowned with the highest triumph, to the honor of art and of the Brazilian women.[1]

The sculptor’s entrance at the Academy of Fine Arts generated doubts for the process, including debates, for the “allowance” granted by the Government could only be given to men and not to women. That dilemma was only decided by the Congress that was favorable to Nicolina Vaz. That debate only proves that the frequency of female artists was much smaller than that of male artists, and only in 1892 we have the record of the entrance of the female public into the National Academy of Fine Arts, although it was inaugurated in 1826.

In the Academy, Nicolina plead the disciplines of figurative and superior drawing, which were uncommon classes to be chosen by the students, aspect that only reveals the self-confidence of the artist and her conscience of the needs of the duty.

Rodolfo and Henrique Bernandelli were her teachers, who noted in Nicolina a strong inclination toward the arts in which she was starting. Her drawing teacher, Rodolpho Amoêdo, and Dr. Márcio Nery[2], as a teacher of anatomy, did not hide the admiration for the artist.

In 1904, her husband took her to Paris in order to perfect her sculpture studies and it was in the Julian Academy that Nicolina Vaz was registered. The Julian Academy, inaugurated in 1867 by Rodolphe Julian, was much frequented by foreigners. The reasons for she having registered in this academy and not in the École des Beaux-Arts are: first, the Julian Academy offered a preparatory class to those who wished to enter into the Official Academy; second, the team of professors was composed by renowned masters and; finally, the Julian Academy was pioneer in the professionalization of female artists that came from all around the world to improve their studies, which was not possible in their countries of origin.

In the Julian Academy the students learnt the technique of controlling the lines and colors and the knowledge of the human body, and the latter’s exact representation was one of the fundamental aspects in the formation of the artists. That technique could be obtained through the studies done day by day with the nude models for eight hours. The study with nude models was one of the aspects that excluded the participation of female artists from these classes in the traditional academies, not by the initiative of the artists, but by the directors who thought it was improper. This loss of a deep knowledge resulted in the lack by several artists of the mastery of the plastic of a body portrayed right in a moment when they were thought as heroic figuration. In the Julian Academy the artists had total liberty to attend to these classes, however they should by able to pay a much more expensive fee, for the value was twice than that required for the male students.

The most significative is that the Julian Academy trained several Brazilian artists, like Georgina Albuquerque, the sculptor Julieta de França and Nicolina Vaz de Assis herself, among others.

In 1907, Nicolina Vaz went again to exhibit in the national salon showing a set of works, four in plaster, Gravina’s Bust, Smiling Head, Meditation, Oration and a bronze, Secret, and she won the silver medal for all of them, a reward thought to be praiseful. 

From that moment on, the sculptor was already known and recognized by the art critics, and she received the important commission to decorate, together with other renowned artists, the buildings of the 1908’s National Exhibition, which rendered to her a golden medal.

Nicolina started to frequent the two biggest artistic markets, those of Rio de Janeiro and of São Paulo, participating in the most important salons that were promoted in each city and where she started to receive commissions from the patrons. 

In 1911, she participated in an event of great range in the city of São Paulo: the I Brazilian Exhibition of Fine Arts, where she exhibited the works Wild Love and Children’s Head. In 1912, she sent again works to the Salon of the National School: two busts, one of the Baron of Rio Branco[3] and the other the Bust of the Brazilian Republic. The first bust was made in Paris where she marries for the second time with Rodolfo Pinto do Couto, also sculptor, in the time in which the artist did not received any scholarship anymore, living from the private and public commissions that she obtained. 

In 1913, she exhibited more 04 works in the salons: Wild Love, Sleepy, Last Letter, and Dr. Francisco Pereira Passos’ Bust; in 1915, two works, The First Letter, and Head of Christ; in 1916, The Brazilian Republic, made in marble, besides a bronze, Study of a Kid.

Among the set of her works, there are still to be highlighted the busts of Nilo Peçanha[4] and Deodoro da Fonseca. [5]

Her works also served as embellishments for the parks and gardens in the Rio de Janeiro, like The Serpent [Figura 2] and the bust of Glaziou, situated in the Quinta da Boa Vista, and the Triton’s Fountain [Figura 3], situated in the Public Promenade in the Cinelândia. The latter was stolen in 1993 and in 2004 a copy of it was made.

In the National Museum of Fine Arts there are two of her bronzes: Aunt Bastiana and Meditation. In 1922, in the famous Salon that commemorated the Centenary of Independence, she exhibited: Brazilian Republic, Study of a Head, and Children’s Head.

Nicolina also made two funerary works: one for the grave of José Grey, situated in the Saint John the Baptist Cemetery, in the Rio de Janeiro, and other, from 1905, to the grave of the General Couto de Magalhães[6] [Figura 4], situated in the Consolation Cemetery, in São Paulo, which is the only funerary work signed by a female artist in the first public cemetery of the city. Inaugurated in 1858, it was the place where the rich families of the city made the entombments and they hired architects and sculptors of renown to build and ornament the graves of illustrious personalities.  

The work was commissioned while the sculptor was in Paris, where there were several graves with the same structure that served as inspiration for her. In the top of the grave we can find the bust of General Couto de Magalhães, in the bottom, a female figure, and in the center a panel (molten in the “Cavina Foundry”, in the Rio de Janeiro, owned by Rodolfo Bernardelli), where there is a mention to General Couto de Magalhães’ most known book: The Savage.

In July 20, 1941, Nicolina Vaz de Assis’ hands became silent and the Brazilian art looses one of the most notable and brave sculptors. Few artists of her time were so productive and could live from their own work: The art of the sculptor Nicolina Vaz de Assis Pinto do Couto is characterized by the soft gift of shaping the grace and the purity of children”.[7]


ARROIO, Leonardo. São Paulo Antigo e São Paulo Moderno. São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1953.

TOLEDO, Roberto Pompeu de. A capital da solidão: Uma história de São Paulo das origens a 1900. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2003.

GORDINHO, Margarida Cintra (org). Liceu de Artes e Ofícios de São Paulo: Missão Excelência. São Paulo: Marca D’água, 2000.

PINACOTECA STATION. Nineteenth Century Class of Art History. São Paulo, July 2007.

SIMIONI, Ana Paula Cavalcanti. Profissão Artista: pintoras e escultoras brasileiras entre 1884 e 1922. PhD Thesis, FFLCH/USP, 2004.

STATE ARCHIVES. Memória Urbana: A Grande São Paulo até 1940. São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial, 2001. Second Vol.

TERMS OF AGREEMENT BOOKS, 5.12.1924 to 30.3.1927. Manuscripts Section, Historical Archives Division, DPH/SMC. São Paulo.

English version by Marcelo Hilsdorf Marotta

* More about Nicolina Vaz de Assis at DezenoveVinte

[1] Note printed in the The Messenger [A Mensageira], journal dedicated to the female public, founded in 1898.

[2] Dr. Márcio Nery, physician and teacher at the Alfredo Pinto Nursing School.

[3] José Maria da Silva Paranhos Júnior, Baron of the Rio Branco (1845-1912), was born in the Rio de Janeiro, and was teacher, politician, journalist, diplomat, historian and biographer.

[4] Nilo Procópio Peçanha (1867-1924), Brazilian politician, took over the Presidency of the Republic from 1909 to 1910.

[5] Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca (1827-1892), was a Brazilian military soldier and politician, proclaimer of the Republic and first Brazilian President.

[6] José Vieira Couto de Magalhães (1837-1898), writer and folklorist from Minas Gerais. He was President of the Goiás, Pará, Mato Grosso and São Paulo Provinces.

[7] Saul de Navarro - Week Magazine [Revista da Semana].