The oldest known art in Brazil is the cave paintings in Serra da Capivara National Park in the state of Piauí, dating back to c. 13,000 BC. More recent examples have been found in Minas Gerais and Goiás, showing geometric patterns and animal forms.

The first Western artists active in Brazil were Roman Catholic priests who came from Portugal to “civilize” the Indians. Jesuits assumed an important role in this process, with their many missionary establishments called "Reductions" teaching religion through art in the form of sacred plays, music, statuary, and painting. José de Anchieta was the first important playwright; Agostinho de Jesus and Agostinho da Piedade produced the first known sculptures; Belchior Paulo, João Felipe Bettendorff, Ricardo do Pilar, and a few others did the first paintings; while Francisco de Vaccas and Pedro da Fonseca started organizing the musical life of the infant colony. Basílio da Gama and Gregório de Mattos were the first secular poets. All of them worked under the influence of the Baroque, the dominant style in Brazil until the early 19th century.

One single event in the 19th century sowed the seeds for a complete renewal in Brazilian visual arts: the arrival of the French Artistic Mission in 1816, which strongly reinforced the Neoclassical style, previously seen in Brazil only in timid attempts. Joachim Lebreton, its leader, proposed the creation of an Academy of Fine Arts, later restructured as the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy was the most important center for the visual arts through nearly the whole of the 19th century. It imposed a new concept of artistic education and was the basis for a revolution in Brazilian painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic arts, and crafts.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a struggle between old schools and modernist trends. The Week of Modern Art festival, held in São Paulo in 1922, was received with fiery criticism by conservative sectors of the society, but it was a landmark in the history of Brazilian art. It included plastic arts exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and the reading of poems. Due to the radicalism (for the times) of some of their poems and music, the artists were vigorously booed and pelted by the audience, and the press and art critics in general were strong in their condemnation.

However, those artists are now seen as the founders of Modern art in Brazil. Modernist literature and theory of art were represented by Oswald de Andrade, Sérgio Milliet, Menotti del Picchia, and Mário de Andrade, whose revolutionary novel Macunaíma (1928) is one of the founding texts of Brazilian Modernism. Painting was represented by Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Lasar Segall, Vicente do Rego Monteiro; sculpture by Victor Brecheret; and music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, the leader of a new musical nationalism, among many others.

Brazilian contemporary art and photography are among the most creative in Latin America, growing an international prominence each year with exhibitions and publications. Names like Miguel Rio Branco, Vik Muniz, Sebastião Salgado, Guy Veloso, and others, get strong. Some artists as: Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Naza, Cildo Meireles among others, have also been featured on the international stage.