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Draftsman, painter, journalist, and founder of the “Escuela de Bellas Artes” mentioned in the title of this article, General Alberto Urdaneta wrote this text on the occasion of the official opening of the premises of the school on July 20, 1886, Colombian Independence Day. The text is divided into three parts. The first connects modern art education in Colombia with the regenerationist ideals of President Rafael Núñez and his adviser Miguel Antonio Caro. Those ideals include a historicist art for the country, one that attempts to create not only images but also the canon of an official version of history. The second section names the specific courses deemed necessary for public university-level instruction in the fine arts in Colombia. The third section includes the speech that Urdaneta himself gave at the opening ceremony.
Though instruction at the Escuela de Bellas Artes had begun in April 1886, it was not until July 20 of that year that the opening ceremony was held. With the creation of that institution which, from the beginning, formed part of the Universidad Nacional of Colombia (founded in 1867), the Colombian state began offering university-level public education free of charge in what were considered the fine arts at the time. From then on, the fine arts were recognized with a university-level degree.
The Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes encompassed in a single institution the various art academies active in Bogota at the time, academies supported by public funds and directed by the artists who would become the heads of the new institution’s various departments. Drawing and gouache, for instance, were taught by draftsman, painter, and journalist Alberto Urdaneta (1845-1887); wood engraving was taught by artist Antonio Rodríguez. A department of sculpture and decoration was created; it was directed by Italian sculptor and decorator Cesare Sighinolfi (1833-1902) and Swiss painter and decorator Luis Ramelli.
With the opening of the art school, regenerationist President Rafael Núñez (1887-1988) was able to create the images of an official version of history that supported the premises of the Colombian state on the basis of “the celebration of civilization” and “the hope of progress.” The opening of the art school in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, was considered a centralist triumph that furthered regenerationist ideals and the fine arts as opposed to the vocational instruction in crafts associated with an industrial project. The champions of this vision were bourgeois youth and the children of large landowners who supported art that spread the late 19th-century ideas of the human spirit and beauty. Vocational and artisan instruction was relegated to the Instituto de Artesanos, directed at that time by an impoverished guild of city artisans. The aim of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, which became the Art Department of the Universidad Nacional of Colombia, was to provide modern instruction in art in order to train professional fine artists.