12 Important Philippine Artworks You Should See at the National Museum
The National Museum of Fine Arts houses an extensive collection of works by esteemed Philippine artists, from masters like Juan Luna, Felix Resurrection Hidalgo, and Fernando Amorsolo to modernist painters such as Vicente Manansala, José T. Joya, and Hernando R. Ocampo, among many others.
Here is our list of the top 12 works you must see at the National Museum.
1. Spoliarium by Juan Luna (1884, Rome)
Painted by Juan Luna, one of the first internationally recognized Filipino artists, the Spoliarium is the most famous artwork in the National Museum. The painting is impossible to miss, as it is 6.75 meters tall by 4.22 meters wide, the largest painting in the Philippines. The Latin word Spoliarium refers to the basement of the Colosseum in Rome, where dying gladiators were stripped of their garments and weapons after battle and left to take their last breath. It took Luna eight months to paint this scene in Rome. Trained in the Western style of painting in 19th century Spain, Luna eventually won the Philippines’ first gold medal for the Spoliarium at the Exposition de Bellas Artes in May 1884.
2. El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) by Felix Resurrection Hidalgo (1898-1904, Paris)
Hidalgo’s painting presents a theatrical portrayal of the shocking assassination of Governor General Fernando Bustamante in 1719 by a mob of friars in a conflict between church and state. Hidalgo highlights the dramatic event with the use of bold color, dramatic lighting and dynamic movement. Fearing that the artwork would spark controversy, Hidalgo never showcased it in Barcelona. He later won a silver medal for it at the 1905 St. Louis Exposition in Missouri. The painting is now known as a national treasure, with its place in the museum right across Luna’s Spoliarium.
3. Ruins of the Legislative Building by Fernando Amorsolo (1945)
Known for his idealized portrayal of Philippine rural life and beautiful scenic landscapes, Fernando Amorsolo’s depictions of the World War II devastation of Manila were in stark contrast to his usual subject matter. Amorsolo was known to have spent his time during the war in his home in Manila, which was near the Japanese garrisons. From here, he sketched vivid images of the city’s destruction which he managed to see from his window and rooftop. The picture showcases the usual spectrum of gentle colors seen in Amorsolo’s landscapes. However, the ruins of a once impressive structure give the viewer an idea of the incredible aftermath of the war. The Legislative Building was said to be the grandest and most impressive structure of all public buildings constructed during the American occupation. It is now the National Museum of Fine Arts.
4. Portrait of a Lady by Juan Luna
Juan Luna’s Portrait of a Lady was long-believed to be a portrait of his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, but is more likely a depiction of one of his favorite models. The painting portrays an idyllic image of a beautiful fair-skinned Spanish mestiza reclining in her bed. The portrait carries with it a legend that it brings bad luck to each of its owners, with its last proprietor being the former Philippine First Lady, Imelda Marcos. The picture was once displayed at Malacañang Palace before it was eventually donated to the National Museum by the Marcos family.
5. Relief carvings in the Senate Hall of the Old Legislative Building by Isabelo Tampingco
A gifted sculptor, Isabelo Tampinco began to carve at an early age in tiny workshops in Binondo and Santa Cruz. His talent in creating lifelike figures and decorative carvings that incorporated Philippine motifs, especially the anahaw leaf, was not a surprise, as he was a descendant of Chinese sculptors based in Binondo.
Tampinco later decided to open his own studio in Quiapo, Manila. Adorned with intricate carvings of classical figures and motifs, the Old Senate Session Hall at the National Museum should not be overlooked. The hall was the setting for various Senate hearings and debates during the American occupation. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. delivered his privilege speech leading up to martial law in 1972.
6. A Copy of De La Imitación de Cristo y Menosprecio Del Mundo (The Imitation of Christ) by Thomas Á Kempis (Barcelona, 1895)
This is a rare relic that tells a tragic story and gives viewers a look into the life of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. This Christian devotional book written by German-Dutch priest, Thomas Á Kempis was once owned by Jose Rizal and given to his wife, Josephine Bracken in 1896, the year of his execution.
The book is one of the most widely-read Christian devotional works after the Bible. It was given to Josephine Bracken after her marriage to Rizal in the Fort Santiago cell where he was held captive. Only a few hours later, Rizal was executed at Luneta, with this book being one of the last possessions he had with him before his death. The book was inscribed with the dedication, “To my dear and unhappy wife / Josephine / December 30, 1896 / José Rizal.”
7. The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines by Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco
This four series painting by National Artist Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco depicts the history and development of Philippine medicine over the centuries. Francisco was a muralist painter, known for his historical works, and one of the first artists known to veer way from Amorsolo’s romanticism of Philippine subject matter.
Originally located in the Philippine General Hospital, the mural was restored several times in 1974, 1991, and 2006. Each panel portrays medicine in a different era, with the first being the pre-colonial period, followed by the Spanish colonization, the American colonization and lastly, the modern era. The series is a must-see, as it was declared a national treasure in 2011.
8. Mission Accomplished by HR Ocampo
National Artist for the Visual Arts HR Ocampo was a member of the pre-war “Thirteen Moderns,” a group of artists established by Victorio Edades in 1938. Their works often showcasing the jarring realities of the Philippines post World War II.
Ocampo was one of the artists who paved the way for modern art in the Philippines and was known for his use of bold and intense colors and abstract shapes. This painting is one of the few Ocampo works where figures are still distinguishable, the battlefield and planes in the artwork depicting the reality of war. His later works fell more in the abstract spectrum, with his drawings becoming even more unorthodox in manner.
9. Planting of the First Cross by Vicente S. Manansala
Vicente S. Manansala often portrayed Philippine historical events, and was also known for his ability to successfully depict Philippine city and rural life. This picture represents one of the most significant events in Philippine history: the 1521 planting of a cross in Cebu by Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who encountered the Philippines in the 16th century.
Blending traditional and modern techniques, Manansala’s technique of “transparent cubism” has become one of the most recognized painting styles among Filipino artists.
10. The Hills of Nikko by Jose T. Joya
A pioneer of non-figurative abstract expression in Philippine visual art, Jose Joya was known to have spearheaded the growth of abstract expressionism. Joya’s Hills of Nikko depicts the snowy wintertime in Nikko, Japan. After Joya visited Nikko, he painted this balanced image of hues and strokes as an expression of his aesthetic experience. The painting is said to be a representation of human imperfections, with the earthly colors symbolizing humanity and its limitations. On the other hand, the blues and greens are meant to epitomize hope. The artwork was shown at the Venice Biennale 1964.
11. Lady in Distress by Benedicto R. Cabrera “BenCab”
National Artist Benedict R. Cabrera, also known as “BenCab,” is the most distinguished painter of his generation, recognized for his portraits of women in bundled fabric. The influence of his older brother Salvador, also a painter, and and Jose T. Joya at the University of the Philippines gave BenCab both an early start and an edge as an artist. This eye-catching monochromatic painting portrays a woman in deep stress with bold strokes, conveying a powerful image and emotions.
12. Personalities by Federico Aguilar Alcuaz
National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz was known for his modernist abstract paintings with influences of cubism. Alcuaz spent some time in Spain, where he maintained a studio in Barcelona. On the third floor of the National Museum, a long bright-colored hallway is filled with a series of portraits painted by Alcuaz, which is part of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) Collection. Depicting well-known Philippine personalities, these portraits encompassed politicians, socialites, actors, and artists.
Seen here are three pictures from the series: artist HR Ocampo, Philippine President Fidel Ramos, and comedian Rodolfo “Dolphy” Quizon.
The National Museum is located at Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila, open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.