He was a Venezuelan painter born in Valencia, Carabobo State. He began to paint at a young age under his father's tutelage. Traveled to Paris where he studied in the famous Académie Julian. He was the first Venezuelan artist to succeed overseas and, with Cristóbal Rojas (1857–1890) and Martín Tovar y Tovar (1827–1902), one of the most important Venezuelan painters of the 19th century.
His first great success occurred in Paris at Le Salon des Artistes Français in 1887. Encouraged by his teacher Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Michelena presented a canvas titled L'Enfant Malade (The sick boy) which was awarded the Gold Medal, second class, the highest honor a foreign artist could receive at the salon. The painting was quickly considered a masterpiece and was acquired by the Astors in New York in the late 19th century.
Michelena returned to Venezuela, where he concentrated on portraiture and depicting major scenes in the national history of the country. He died at the age of only 35 in Caracas in 1898. His works are held in high esteem in Venezuela in particular, where the National Gallery in Caracas has a major collection of them. He is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of painting in Venezuela, alongside Cristóbal Rojas (1857-1890) and Martín Tovar y Tovar (1827-1902). Unfortunately there are too few good images of their paintings to support separate articles about them.