“Perhaps the best known, the most highly regarded, the most widely and popularly acclaimed, the most widely recognized Filipino painter living, here or abroad, certainly the most senior, the most esteemed, the most highly respected, surely the painter who has been the most richly rewarded for his efforts, that is, in terms of sales, prizes, awards, signal honors and distinctions, the painter who has been generally regarded as the dean of his fellows, the painter that Success has singled out for her own, the painter looked up to as master by succeeding generations of painters is Fernando Amorsolo,” I feverishly (and rather illegibly) scribble down on my notebook.
The paragraph above was quoted from this tattered, browning news article which was already too ancient and damaged for me to be able to see what publication it was printed in. It is now comfortably framed and housed by the Vargas Museum, specifically in the second floor, where some of the textual records on the first National Artist in Painting are on display. The rather verbose introduction of the article was written by Francisco Arcellana, who happens to be a National Artist in Literature himself. This relic particularly caught my interest as the article was about Amorsolo’s first one-man show in the National Museum on November 6, 1968. What kind of god was he during his prime that he deserved such an introduction in which Arcellana could’ve easily written all the words of flattery in the English lexicon to describe him, in which leaving out one good adjective would’ve seemed abominable? His close ties with the high-flying society that included the likes of Jorge Vargas and Enrique Zobel de Ayala (who would, according to the information presented by the museum, even grant him a scholarship in Escuela de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain) only stress on the celebrity that he already enjoyed those days. And this was once a little boy from Paco who dabbled with his uncle’s (Fabian de la Rosa, also a painter) paint, perhaps not dreaming that he would, in a few years, be “the painter that Success has singled out for her own.”
The Maestro’s skill with the use of backlight in his works could be his most important contribution to Philippine painting. In almost all of his pieces, there’s always this glow that outlines his figures, giving them a more recognizable shape. It might be the very cause behind the life-like appearances of all his subjects. Everything does seem like a captured moment, a moment frozen by the hands of a
master, with his oil, on his canvas, outliving the very creator himself. And I so declare this as I, a dweller of the 21st century, behold the kind of art that only a classical genius could deliver. From lush nudes to beautiful landscapes, from historical paintings of the war to idyllic genre paintings of bountiful harvests, from portraits of important people to portraits of unnamed secretaries or dalagitas, Amorsolo’s versatility is beyond amazing. And yet, despite all these executions of a myriad of themes, he still managed to bring that all too familiar “Amorsolo touch” to all his works: his love affair with sunlight. Perhaps there are a few that do not attest to this, like “Fishing at Night” (1942, oil on woodboard) for instance, which is my personal favorite. It depicts a man hardly visible because of the murky background, which, at first, strikes one as being so “un-Amorsolo.” But one later notices that the moon in fact, although not deliberately drawn, has its reflection cast on the riverbank (or seashore, I’m not exactly sure). So in a way, Amorsolo still played with light even in this very dark piece of his that it doesn’t exactly mean anything malevolent as perhaps suggested by its overwhelming darkness. It is JUST, after all, a man “fishing at night.” This is another characteristic of Amorsolo’s works: his easy portrayals of the Filipino life. Probing deeper into a certain painting is unnecessary, almost pointless actually, just to be able to get the whole picture, which can already be achieved even at first glance. With his trademark imitation of light and exploitation of colors (the museum guide shared that Amorsolo never worked on a palette but directly mixed layers upon layers of hues on the canvas), he produced his most popular series of genre paintings that mostly remind us of the more beautiful Philippine setting. They illustrated that he wasn’t keen on showing ugliness. Sorrow and struggle were apparently not his cup of tea. Dr. Rod Paras-Perez would affirm this in Amorsolo Drawings: “Thus for him was as it was for the classical masters—man must be presented not how he is but how he ought to be.”
I was given a firsthand glimpse of not only his artistic gift but also of his frame of mind. I can, therefore, safely say that Amorsolo was quite the idealist. It is then no wonder that Francisco Arcellana wouldn’t mind writing him a 100-word introduction. With the Maestro’s dreamy view of the world, sun-kissed rendering of the traditional Pinoy, he did not only live a most colorful life literally and metaphorically, but also gave us, even several generations later, a colorful peek at the ideal Philippines.
Fruit Pickers under the Mango Tree, 1937, Oil on Canvas
Palay Maiden (1920) - Oil on canvas