Ateneo De Naga high school 1980

Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fernando Amorsolo, the genius behind the brush

A few months ago, I watched the movie about the life of Cory Aquino. There was a part in the movie where Ninoy Aquino gave Cory a surprise gift during her 21st birthday. The gift was a portrait of Cory when she was 18 years old and it was painted by the famous Filipino painter, Fernando Amorsolo. Though I liked the movie, the name of the artist who painted the portrait stuck in my mind. Wanting to satisfy my curiosity, I decided to research on Amorsolo’s life and ended up writing this simple article.

The purpose why I write historical articles is not just to feature the achievements of Filipinos that possesses exceptional talent and dedication to their chosen craft. As an amateur historian, it is also my small duty to ensure that the memories and accomplishments of our forefathers are kept alive to motivate the young minds of our children.

Currently, we are all being swept by a whirlwind of modernization. Anybody who knows how to operate a computer seemed capable of creating dazzling pictures by means of just clicking a mouse. Before all these computer science artistry occurred, all portraitist and painters use basic materials like paint and canvas. Creating an image takes more time and skill. Watching these artists at work is a wonder because their paint brushes seemed to dance on the surface of their canvas with ease. The symphony of colors on the canvas brings to life an image that seemed to have a soul of its own.

The story about the miracle on the canvas started when a young boy living in a small town of Daet decided to sketch the provincial settings around him. This is his story....

Fernando Amorsolo was born on May 30, 1892 in Calle Herran in Paco, Manila to Pedro Amorsolo and Bonifacia Cueto. When he was only seven months old, his father moved the family to Daet, Camarines Norte, to work as a bookkeeper for two abaca firms. Pedro was able to earn a modest income which was enough to keep his family comfortable.

At an early age, Fernando started to show early signs of his artistic talent. He would go out to the coast (probably Bagasbas beach or the coastal town of Mercedes) to draw pictures of the ships by the wharves. Fernando spent a lot of time in the midst of rice fields and abaca plantations sketching animals, seascapes and landscapes. He also spent some of his time copying pictures from calendars. During the revolutionary period, he was attracted to the guardia civils in the streets of Daet and made them subjects for his paintings.

(Ex-mayor Sarion of Daet shared that his elders told him that Amorsolo painted a few pictures in the ceiling of a church in Daet. Since they did not know better then, when the church was renovated, the paintings on the church ceiling disappeared.)

It was his mother who recognized the young Amorsolo’s talent. She would send her son’s drawings to her cousin Fabian dela Rosa, a prominent painter in Manila. At this early age, Amorsolo displayed an affinity for the rural landscape which was a reflection of his own small world.

Tragedy struck early in Amorsolo’s life. One evening when Fernando was still very young, his father was awakened by shouts coming from outside his window. The leader of the revolutionary movement fighting the Spaniards stood outside their house and demanded that Amorsolo’s half brother Perico join their group. Though Fernando’s father was very much against the demands of the rebels, Perico went out of their house and joined the rebels. The family never saw him again.

After the failure of the 1896 uprising, neighbors told the Amorsolo family that they saw Perico being taken to jail bound with a bamboo pole strapped to his back. He was later executed by the Spaniards. Shattered with grief by the death of his son, Amorsolo’s father Pedro never recovered from the ordeal and died from a heart attack a few years later.

His father died when Amorsolo was eleven years old. Before he passed away, Pedro made his wife promise to give Fernando a proper art education. The widowed Bonifacia gathered her family and returned to Manila with the hopes of finding better prospects to provide for her family. Her cousin Don Fabian dela Rosa opened his doors to the family. It was here that Amorsolo had his first real exposure to the art world.

To make ends meet, Bonifacia did embroidery to feed her family. Fernando made himself useful by assisting Don Fabian in his studio. It was during this time that Amorsolo received his first art instruction from Don Fabian. To help his mother, Amorsolo drew sketches and sold water color postcards to a local bookstore for 10 centavos each.

Amorsolo's first success as a young painter came in 1908, when his painting Leyendo el periódico took second place at the Bazar Escolta, a contest organized by the Asociacion Internacional de Artistas.

In 1909, Amorsolo enrolled at the Art School of the Liceo de Manila but had to drop out on his third year because he did not have the financial means to continue. Wanting to finish college, Amorsolo sketched post cards for shops and did other odd art jobs. Eventually, he was able to enroll at the University of the Philippines to continue his studies. (Note: I am not too sure if Amorsolo really dropped out during his junior year in Liceo De Manila due to financial hardship because there are accounts that said that he was a scholar and other accounts also said that he graduated from Liceo de Manila with honors.)

When Amorsolo enrolled in the University of the Philippines, Don Fabian De La Rosa was an art professor in the university. To make money during school, Amorsolo joined competitions and did illustrations for various Philippine publications, including Severino Reyes’ first novel in Tagalog, Parusa ng Diyos (God’s Punishment), and Iñigo Ed. Regalado's Madaling Araw (Dawn). He also illustrated for the religious Pasion books. In 1914, Amorsolo became a member of the first graduating class of the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts.

Amorsolo came to an age when the Philippines transitioned from a Spanish colony to an American colony. Though American influence slowly crept into the Filipino culture, Amorsolo still yearned for the life he knew during his childhood days in Daet. His paintings embodied the traditions and lifestyle he knew during the Spanish era. His canvases were filled with scenes of Spanish era fiestas, old churches and rituals.

Amorsolo’s professors at the University of the Philippines were quite impressed by the young painter. Some of them thought that Amorsolo’s brush work surpassed their own. He was hired as an art instructor at the University of the Philippines. While teaching, Amorsolo also worked as a draftsman and chair designer for the Philippine Bureau of Public Works. He was also hired by the Pacific commercial company as a chief artist.

Amorsolo designed the logo for Ginebra San Miguel (Markang Demonyo) depicting St. Michael vanquishing the devil. The log is still in use in its original form today. The owner of the beverage company, Don Enrique Zobel, who is an ardent patron of the arts, was so impressed by his work that he offered to send Amorsolo to the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid for further studies with a generous stipend for himself and his family. The artist took the standard entrance exam at the Academia. After the school evaluated his work, Amorsolo was surprised when the school informed him that they would accept him not as a student but as a professor at the school.

Amorsolo was a very shy man. After his acceptance at the Academia, a banquet was held in his honor. When he was escorted into the banquet hall, he was so nervous that he excused himself to go to the men’s room. He hurriedly went through the back door and went back to his hotel room. A school official later found him and prevailed on him to return to the banquet. He steadfastly refused.

It is ironic that someone as talented and accomplished as Amorsolo was also known for his diffidence. Throughout his career, he shied away from any public event that was thrown in his honor. His confidence was almost purely reserved and confined to the practice of his trade.

Amorsolo eventually settled in and spent seven months in Madrid where he was able to observe the works of the masters. He visited art galleries and museums to study the works of Diego Velasquez, El Greco, Goya, Monet, Manet, Van Dyck, Sargent, and Joaquin Sorolla. It is here where he honed his skills and perfected his technique. Diego Velasquez was one of his major influences learning from his superior brush work, painterly style, and mastery of color. He would also learn from and build upon Sorolla’s technique of utilizing the sun to draw out the most dramatic effects from the heightened sunlit colors and dramatic contrasts between light and shade.

Despite his exposure to Western influences, Amorsolo retained his Filipino consciousness. He was drawn more towards the gentle rolling hills and rice fields of the Philippines rather than the cosmopolitan world of Europe’s proud cities. Even his illustrations of Spanish women were drawn with slender physiques, narrower hips, and smaller breasts more typical of Filipinas rather than full bodied Caucasian women.

After his stint in Madrid, Amorsolo came home to the Philippines ready to apply what he learned. American servicemen, officials, and businessmen sought out his paintings to bring home to the States as a token of remembrance for their stay in the Philippines. One of Amorsolo’s client was Capt. Robert Kennedy who brought home to the U.S. a few of Amorsolo’s pieces and had them framed at the Art Center Gallery in New York. The gallery owners inquired about the artist which led to Amorsolo’s first one-man show in New York in 1925. Of the 40 pieces, 24 were immediately purchased.Amorsolo often uses his family members to pose for his paintings. At one time, he made his house helpers pose for him and paid them for posing for him. His daughter asked why he had to pay them additional on top of their regular salary. He replied, "We have hired them to do housework and not to pose for me. Therefore, they should be compensated for posing for my painting".

Amorsolo’s first wife passed away in 1931 leaving him with six children. He had six more children by a common-law wife. In 1935, he married Maria del Carmen who gave him eight more children. Fortunately, his reputation was growing as fast as his brood and his work was more than enough to provide for his large family.

When World War 2 broke out in 1941 and the Japanese occupied Manila, Amorsolo lived in the city along with his family. Amorsolo rented a house near Raon street for his wife and children. He and some male relatives lived at their Azcarraga (Now Claro M. Recto) residence which was near a Japanese garrison. During the war, Amorsolo witnessed Filipino civilians, soldiers brought to Far Eastern University (FEU) to be jailed. According to some witnesses, when American forces attacked Manila, all of the prisoners at FEU were slaughtered by the Japanese soldiers.

During the war, Amorsolo’s customer base dissipated due to the hard economic times then. Acquiring painting supplies was a real challenge. Transportation to rural places like Marikina, Antipolo and other outskirts places of Manila were difficult to find and so it deprived Amorsolo from visiting these places where he normally painted his popular landscapes.

Some of the subjects of Amorsolo’s painting during world war 2 were about suffering and destruction. A few of these paintings are: “The rape of Manila” (1942), “Bombing of Intendencia” (1942) and “The Explosion” (1944). One of his famous war era painting is the “Defense of a Filipina Woman’s Honor” where it showed a Filipino man holding a bolo about to defend his wife and daughter from being raped by an unseen Japanese soldier. His wartime paintings are considered among his finest work and were exhibited at Malacanang Palace in 1948.

After the war, Amorsolo went back to painting the bright sun-drenched countryside scenes for which he was most well-known. He reached the peak of his popularity in the late 1940’s and 1950’s garnering numerous awards.

Amorsolo’s paintings were in such high demand that he photographed his art works and placed them in an album. Prospective patrons could then choose from his art catalogue and Amorsolo would paint them. Amorsolo did not create exact replicas of his trademark themes but instead recreated the paintings by varying some elements.

Amorsolo by then was so sure of his strokes when he painted that he is able to finish painting a picture in a very short period of time. At one point, he was able to finish ten paintings a month. It is believed that part of his motivation to finish a high number of paintings was to support his large family.

Some group of artists criticized Amorsolo’s machine-like efficiency in producing paintings. In the midst of a swarm of criticism, Amorsolo never raised his voice and put up a defense. There was no shortage of people who stood up to defend the artist. Among Amorsolo’s staunchest supporter was his best friend, Guillermo Tolentino, the finest sculptor in the Philippines. When Amorsolo was asked why he never spoke up in his own defense, the artist responded that he had already matured as an artist. He had nothing left to prove and was comfortable painting what he wished in the form of expression that he chose.

Amorsolo worked until the last year of his life. Age was starting to catch up with him. He was afflicted with diabetes and arthritis in addition to his heart condition. His eyesight was also beginning to fail him and he had to undergo a cataract operation. In his later works, his failing vision led to wayward brush strokes of red and blue lines where a mound of earth should be. Despite these challenges, the quality of his output remained high and his popularity never waned.

Two traumatic tragedies struck Amorsolo during the later years of his life. In 1964, his eldest son Fernando Jr. died from asthma and tuberculosis. The artist was so grief-stricken that he could not bear to attend his own son’s funeral. Seven years later in 1971, his youngest child Milo died in a car accident. The pain of having to bury two of his children was too much for Amorsolo to bear. Five days short of a year after Milo died, Amorsolo died of heart failure on April 24, 1972.

According to one of Amorsolo’s students, when the national artist died, he had only 50 pesos in his bank account.

A few interesting facts about Amorsolo:

* Amorsolo painted the portrait of Dona Pura Garchitorena Toral, a member of the prominent Familia Garchitorena of Camarines Sur.

*Five of Amorsolo’s children became artists.

*Amorsolo once said that he hated sad and gloomy paintings. He only painted one painting that had rain in it.

*Amorsolo had a younger brother named Pablo Amorsolo who was born in Daet, Camarines Norte. Like Fernando, Pablo also became an apprentice-painter of his uncle, Don Fabian De La Rosa. During the 1930’s, Pablo drew editorial illustrations for Philippine magazines like Graphic, Tribune, La Vanguardia, Herald and Manila Times. He graduated from the school of fine arts in the University of the Philippines in 1924. Two years after enrolling, he was appointed as assistant teacher of painting. When World War 2 broke out, Pablo became a follower of the Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere and served as a colonel of the dreaded Kempetai (Japanese military police). When the American soldiers succeed in returning to the shores of the Philippines, Pablo Amorsolo was captured by the Filipino guerillas. He was sentenced and executed by firing squad in Antipolo.

* During one of his interviews, Amorsolo said that he preferred to die while painting.

* It was a Good Friday in post-war Manila in 1946 when Amorsolo asked his daughter Lina to pose for him. Being one of the holiest days of the year, the artist’s studio was quiet and empty allowing him to concentrate on this piece. Having asked his wife and children to pose for him in the past, Lina thought nothing of the request. After some time, Amorsolo called his surprised daughter to his side to show her the nearly finished portrait. It was one of only a few solo portraits that the artist painted of any member of his large family. This painting was completed in one day.

* KIKO AT ANGGE is the very first regular komiks strip in the Philippines. It antedated Kenkoy at Rosing for about seven years. Published in an obscure news-magazine called Telembang in the early 1920s, Kiko at Angge was written by Tagalog novelist Inigo Ed Regalado and illustrated by Fernando Amorsolo. It is a hilarious cartoon series about a husband (Kiko) and and his nagger wife (Angge) and their differing views on Philippine society and politics. It also reflects the life of the Filipinos during the middle years of the American rule in the Philippines.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciated very much for what you have written and contributed to our grandfather "The Maestro" Fernando Cueto Amorsolo. Again, I salute you and congratulations for a job well done......

8:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So Fernando Amorsolo painted the Ginebra San Miguel gin label. That drink was so widespread then and there. It's hoped that appreciation for this national artist be as widespread. He's truly an eternal treasure.

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i heard of his works and wonder where are these paintings now. ive learned that he has one painting called "fruit vendor" can somebody trace this for me? it used to be under the administrator of FEU. thank much

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Mrs. Peter James said...

I have the painting of the people planting rice under Mt Myon. 1950. Also have the group under the large tree cooking over a fire.1949 My husband and family lived in the P. I. during the war in the jungle on the Cameroon Peninsula. After the war they purchased the paintings from Mr. Amorsolo personally. We cherish them. Mimi James

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mimi James,

If your paintings are for sale please contact me

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mimi James,

If your paintings are for sale pls contact me at

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi I am selling a naguilian road painting by amorsolo please let me know if your interested thanks

4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the owner of Naguilian road painting, what is your email address? Email me at

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh my na touch ako at ang sad ng painting, bastus den yung isang painting niya

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to thank you for writing this concise but interesting article on the artist. It is great, and I learnt a lot.

9:30 PM  

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