A 19th-century burgher records the faces of his people (originally published in the 1975 edition of the Archipelago magazine)
Perhaps the most satirical of witticisms expressed about the Philippines during the Spanish times was made by a visiting French nobleman in a report to his country in 1766. « I am writing you from the other side of the globe, and may I even add from the 14th century ! » declared M. Le Gentil de la Galasiere who, steeped in the ideas of the then modern French Enlightenment, must have been intensely shocked about the medieval lifeways of Spain’s territory in Asia.
The erudite Seigneur’s caustic esprit was only one of the volley of similar pointed comments hurled at the quality of the Spanish rule in the islands, criticisms which eventually stirred up some enlightened Spanish hearts into taking steps toward a better administration. Out of these attempts at reforms aimed primarily at improving the country’s unpredictable economy, one move was the institution of government-subsidized agricultural projects and incentives.
Whereas years of economic dependence on the Chinese silk trade with Mexico neglected the natural potentials of the islands, the colonial government now turned its attention to the development of natural resources and the stimulation of agricultural activities.
The much sought- after spices of yore no longer commanded a monopoly of interest; crops like sugar, tobacco, indigo and hemp began to be in demand. In 1834, when Spain at last officially opened Manila to international commerce, progress began to be seen in manifold manifestations, among which was art patronage.
Perhaps no other painter’s life was more intimately interwoven with the course of newly prosperous 19th-century Manila than that of the early master, Justiniano Asuncion. Gifted with a durable life of 80 years, he witnessed prosperity coming upon the once languid city and bringing new turns in the destinies of its awakened inhabitants. As a consequence of this long life, his painting career reflected the artistic preferences of his flourishing milieu perhaps more faithfully than any of his contemporaries.
Justiniano Asuncion was elected cabeza de barangay in the community of mestizos in Sta. Cruz, Manila. For this reason, he was ever after fondly called Capitan Ting. The biographer Manuel Artigas y Cuerva jotted a 14-sentence sketch of his life and called him modelo de honradez, an exemplar of tacto y prudencia.
The Sta. Cruz of 1816, when Capitan Ting was born still carried the features of what Le Gentil de la Galaisiere, 50 years earlier, referred to as the “fourteenth century”. As any other Christianized spot in the islands, the district reminded the monsieur of some medieval European faubourg: a self-complacent artisan’s village that only trembled when threatened with the fires of hell. Little surprise it is, therefore, that the quiet nest of sculptors, smiths, embroiderers and jewelry setters was noted for spectacular church processions, activities which must have absorbed the year-round material profits and efforts of its dexterous denizens.
According to the medieval scheme of things, the fine arts were crouched within the level of the crafts. The painter, however much praised, was seated between the tailor and the carpenter. In fact, he had to enlist himself in a guild encompassing all citizens who practiced his profession. This guild system was a mechanism of the colonial government to facilitate the collection of tributes.
Another medieval aspect of Sta. Cruz’ lifeways was the classification of its citizens into communities according to race- Chinese, mestizo or native. Each community elected its own officials and competed with each other in the civic and religious affairs of the district. The Gremio de Mestizos, to which the Asuncions belonged, since 1741 surpassed in prestige its father guild, the Gremio de Chinos.and continued to be the most influential group in the arrabal until the end of the 19th century.
It is often said that artistic genius runs in the family. Justiniano’s lineage is a shining example. His elder brothers, Antonio, Ambrosio and Mariano, were all recognized by religious organizations for their talents as painters. Antonio even earned a flattering epithet, Fra Angelico Filipino! Manuel and Leoncio- Justiniano was the youngest son in a family of 12- maintained a sculptors’ shop and executed many life-size figures, like the Tercera Caida which was carried during Holy Week processions in their home district.
Neither were the Asuncions an ordinary mestizo family. Their father, Don Mariano, assumed the coveted position of cabeza de barangay in 1805. An engraving of his ancestor, copied from a paste original by Justiniano, depicts him in the powerful pose of a grand patriarch. Of interest is his costume. Typical of his mestizo class, he wears loose pantaloons, an equally loose camiza, intricately embroidered at the hems, and a collar kerchief to simulate the European cravat. His hair is gathered at the back of his head into a Chinese pigtail. Curiously, he wears a pair of slippers with curled toes.
Perhaps it is important to mention that the family name was recently acquired. Don Mariano was originally surnamed Kagalitan. Perhaps the old man adopted a Spanish surname as he rose in position in society. The spirit of change was beginning to dominate the times.
Neither did the ambiance of progress leave the artistic world untouched. When Justiniano was about six years of age, the painter’s lot as a craftsman was elevated to better status with the establishment of Escuela de Dibujo, the first public art school in the community. Since the painter now went to school, the respectability of his position became fairly assured. Thus when young Ting reached schooling age, he had not only exposed himself to the artistic influences of his brothers, he must have also attended the Escuela wherein Don Damian seems to have been the sole professor.
When the school closed in 1834- “for lack of funds”- aspiring painters had to seek private tutorship from recognized masters. Both the lessons under Don Damian and those under private tutelage seem to have consisted of the same rigorous training designed to acquaint their pupils with the nuances of realistic painting, with the fastidious emphasis on details, as the standard of times dictated. The supreme test of this sensitivity to details was the limning of miniatures, religious portraits on a golden or ivory or cloth surface, usually the size of a thumb and later on framed on chains or rosary beads. Justiniano made many of these locket paintings but it is difficult to make infallible attributions of extant examples to his name.
One authenticated early work establishes his affiliation to Don Damian and his contemporaries. This religious painting, wrought on copper sheet, is entitled “The Coronation of the Virgin”. A favorite subject of religious paintings, the original picture may have been a polychromatic estampa. The subject, as further interpreted by local painters, has acquired an Oriental grace, a visual flatness or lightness as done in very fine polish with the Chinese brush. The young Justiniano’ painting of the Virgin had a cool sweetness that emanated from cautious hands.
Little drawings of native costumes and scenery such as those trajes painted by Don Damian in the 1820s grew in popularity as more foreign ships docked in the country. What today would be called picture post cards, these little mementos attracted foreign travelers no end. A recently discovered collection of these so- called tipos del pais was done by Justiniano to depict the attire of his times in the 1840s. This album attests to his mastery of water color in drawing the minutest details. A matter of interest is the fact that his album had both Spanish and English captions which hint that they were aimed at some English patrons.
A thriving contemporary, Juan Transfiguration Nepomuceno, also drew similarly costumed figures to illustrate the French scholar Jean Mallat’s Les Philippines. In comparing the two albums, an ineffable difference is at once apparent. While Nepomuceno’s models looked like garbed mannequins, cold and poised, Asuncion’s are breathing humans, pulsating and alive. The characterization of these figures indicate his realistic capturing of the particular personality of his portrait sitters.
Justiniano’s album de trajes was to become the standard to be copied, both in subject and configuration, by future magazine illustrations in his century. His influence is clearly evident beginning with the drawings of C.W. Andrews, the British illustrator of La Illustracion Filipina, a magazine which ran for publication between 1859 and 1860.
Toward the end of the 1840s, Justiniano’s name as a painter had grown in importance. In 1850, Rafael Diaz Arenas, a Spaniard who contributed articles to Diario de Manila, published his memoirs and in it made allusions to Justiniano’s fame. He wrote: “After Damian, Arceo excelled in portraiture…now it is said that there is one in Santa Cruz who paints very well but I do not know him”
By this time, Justiniano had married Justina Parafina. In February 25, 1853, he was elected cabeza de barangay de mestizos in his district like his father before him. During his term, he inaugurated a new street along the San Lazaro Hospital area which is known today as Oroquieta.
By the 1850s, a considerable number of truly affluent Filipino families began to emerge as a result of the flourishing trade with British and American firms. With more money to spend on the amenities of life, tastes for leisure, entertainment and material acquisition began to change accordingly. In the arts, for instance, a marked shift in interest from religious to secular paintings arose not out of sheer irreverence on th clientele’s part, but because it was almost mandatory to equate one’s wealth with more mundane signs. Moreover, the new bourgeoisie’s success in business and agriculture and their eventual ascent to society had precipitated their growing importance as individuals. Understandably, in posing for a portrait, one invariably underscored one’s position or consequence.
Understandably then the earliest known portrait painted by Capitan Ting was dated in the 1850s. The sitter was probably the most influential señor of his district, Don Paterno Molo y Agustin, businessman-proprietor of a chain of merchant boats that brought divers goods as far as Aparri. It was actually Don Paterno’s first name which was later adopted by his socially prominent and affluent descendants as their family name. When he posed for this portrait Don Paterno was in the twilight of his life and his son, the equally prestigious Don Maximo or Capitan Memo was already overseeing his business for him.
Another early portrait executed by Capitan Ting is a half-body close up of his niece, Filomena, eldest daughter of his brother, Leoncio. This retrato is dated to the late 1850s by inference of the style of the model’s costume. Interestingly, this is the only extant portrait depicting a Maria Clara of that period- the panuelo over a non-transparent blouse with striped and relatively tapered long sleeves. One can easily pick out Filomena’s costume among the female figures painted by the German Karuth in 1858.
By the early 1860s, the affluent in the provinces caught the fever for portraits. The portrait painters of Manila now traveled to the provinces to seek the patronage of the town principalia. In Candaba today, in what was once a great house there used to hang the magnificent life-size portrait of Don Norberto Castor, a wealthy landlord of that feudal town. Don Berto’s importance is more than suggested by Capitan Ting in the portrait he painted in 1861. Togged in the fine European fashion of his days, the retrato speaks of a bygone era now romanticized in the movies.
In the late 1870s, Justiniano went back to the Paterno mansion to paint Capitan Memo’s third wife, Doña Teodora, and his daughter, Dolores, composer of the ballad La Flor de Manila, now popularly known as Sampaguita.The three portraits executed by Capitan Ting for the Paternos- Don Paterno included- are of equal artistic merits all attest to the painters unsurpassed forte of capturing his sister’s individual personalities.
Comparatively speaking, however, Don Paterno’s portrait would perhaps draw the interest of the more analytic viewers. Here, the subject is the venerability of old age rather than the relatively common place topic of Filipina femininity or the intricate embroideries of the Maria Clara. Capitan Ting seems to be playing homage to senility rather than to the worldly prominence of his sitter. His interest is in the steady gaze, the heavily drawn lips and the highly domed forehead. The conscious stiffness of his model’s carriage seems to be the wisdom of one who has had battles with life and emerges with more resolute views about it. The infirmity of age is however lightened by the rich designs of his embroidered cuffs and collar. The bold vertical line of the barong gives the old man one last tenacious display of strength and power.
In contrast to the tone and temper of Don Paterno’s retrato, the one of Dolores is a visceral display of bourgeois ostentation. Justiniano justifiably eschews in this masterpiece the element of character- he is primarily concerned with what the eyes can behold rather than what the mind can analyze. The subject is a handsome young woman of the gentry class, and perhaps it should be so. Here, the actual and symbolic nuances of mundane prosperity is at once the order; the rich embroideries of the pañuelo and skirt, the rings on seven fingers, the bejeweled hairpin brooch, the matching fan and kerchief she clasps in one hand, the limpid eyes of one who has not seen much hardship in life, and the fine lips set in an aristocratic smile. The viewer is held back however of begrudging Dolores all her well-appointed fineries because Justiniano imbues her with a kind of inner warmth emanating from an Arcadian purity of mind and spirit. The eyes and the suppressed smile definitely conveys Dolores’ genial nature.
Capitan Ting devotes equally meticulous attention to the exquisite embroidery of the pañuelo in the portrait of Doña Teodora. Yet still, the gracious-but-firm character, which a woman so young had to evolve as matriarch of Capitan Memo’s brood by two previous marriages and as manager of a complex joyeria, or jewelry store and workshop could not but illumine the smooth wood of the picture.
The portraits executed by Capitan Ting, each a unique statement on the nature of a particular individual, always draw out fresh and varying experiences from their viewers. The opposite effect is what is rather felt in portraits done by his contemporaries who almost never went beyond idealizing their sitter’s physical appearance and whose work therefore when seen as a body, despite the variety of subjects, rather leave their viewers with a sense of the monotonous: that you’ve-seen-all-if-you’ve-seen-one-effect.
The impression does not hold with the works of Capitan Ting. An admirer would, on the contrary, be even more amazed upon seeing his portrait of his niece Romana, daughter of his brother Antonio, married to a Carillo from Biñan. This, he painted in 1875. Here, the Master, can no longer be held back by the rigid artistic convention of his setting. The strict surveillance made upon the painter in the previous century conditioned the artist to merely copying engravings or actual objects and forbade him to express any personal interpretation of his subject. Now, the highly individualistic artist that Capitan Ting was, breaks away from the professional distance that he is expected to keep to his work and unabashedly suffuses it with his own presence, his own fine madness. His painting therefore reaches the level of a poet-artist’s manifesto.
Unless other works of similar temperament come to the fore in order that a stylistic lyrical period among Manila’s painters of that time could be established, the portrait of Roman Carillio remains a phenomenon of expression in the entire history of painting in the Philippines. The presently known paintings dated to that decade are likeness-portraits by Antonio Malantik, Lorenzo Rocha, and Simon Flores.
In 1875, neither Juan Luna nor Felix Resurrection Hidalgo had yet reached Europe to experience artistic emancipation. It could only have been through the spark of some book of artistic reproductions or the temperament of some circulating foreign novels that led the highly sensitive Capitan to the possible heights of freedom of spirit that the artist could enjoy in places outside of his environment.
The decade during which Capitan Ting lived, the 1870s, was the decade of Cavite mutiny, a period of witchhunting and, as a whole, was stiflingly repressive. Perhaps such atmosphere was what precisely sent the Maestro to soar into some Elysian sphere. Indeed, the sublime aspiration to transcend the harsh, the bitter or the cruel is the one and only theme of the portrait of Romana Carillo. Just as Romana clasps a book, Capitan Ting’s oeuvre is an appeal to Reason, to Knowledge, to the Order that sometimes only art is capable of. Perhaps it is necessary to mention here that Justiniano went through a very bitter experience when in 1863, the calamitous earthquake that wrecked Manila, ruined his home and killed his bachelor brother, Ambrosio.
There is much more to the merits of “The Woman with a Book” as a phenomenal milestone in the stylistic evolution of Philippine painting. In this work, Justiniano rises above the ground on which he and his artistic predecessors have hitherto worked. In painting the sunset behind Romana Carillo, he advanced the possibilities of the local realistic style, shifting it from its mere use as a technique to render life-likeness to its possible virtue as an idiom of temperament, a mode of self-expression. The landscape, not as a scene per se, but as an instrument to create atmosphere, was itself a novelty and the use of the colors of the sunset could have been a point of departure from the extremely linear predisposition of the current realism.
Indeed, a highly creative person like the Capitan was now bored with the miniaturistic style and wanted to move to another direction in his art.His milieu, however, the entire powerful force actually lagging behind him compelled him to work with it. Hence the detailed workmanship of the portraits of the Paterno ladies. The spirit of the 1880s all the more called for the artist to record his setting in the graphic detail. The decade that cried for reforms- for material, specific changes- obliged the artist to graphically immortalize whatever was gained.
After the earthquake of 1863, there was a rebuilding and renovating of church buildings and the most ornate of ornamentation possible, present evidences seem to say, was the natural defensive reaction toward the witnessed perishability of things.
Four life- size oval frames painted by Capitan Ting, which used to hang on the predentives of Sta. Cruz Church depicting the figures of Saint Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Grant were typical of the taste of the period. These works were done in the trompe l’oeil tradition, offering occasional distractions upon devotees who would look up now and then to wonder whether the adornment of the Saints’ robes were real or painted. An extant example he did in this phase of realism is the painting, “Virgen de Antipolo.” As in paintings of a truly realistic nature, the Capitan was able to capture the natural light that, translated to the canvas, projected the holy image’s priceless jewels to very high relief. Here is realism at its full development, and here was Capitan Ting, bored with it but desperately tied to it whenever commissioned by his powerful patrons.
In the state of boredom, he often used his skills to amuse and confuse his guests and admirers alike. He is remembered to have painted on the downstairs wall of his newly built house, right under the window balustrade, a life-size infant falling in midair. The picture never failed to startle or evoke shrieks from passersby who at first glance thought the child was real. Once he also painted on the top of the chest, a scattering of very realistic coins, causing embarrassment to guests who stopped to pick them up.
It was indeed time for Capitan Ting to amuse not only others but himself. The spirit of change seemed to be no longer working on his side. In 1884, Luna and Hidalgo become a sensational dou when they won major medals at the Exposition de Bellas Artes in Madrid. This achievement created a completely new turn in the artistic tastes of the time, for now artists who were educated abroad were lionized over those who stayed home and did not have the benefits of a European training. The wily ones began to copy Luna’s or Hidalgo’s techniques and concepts. Others who chose to remain as they were risked the danger of vanishing from the success scene.
Capitan Ting who was in his 70s probably considered himself too old to compete with the young and trendy painters. In Manila’s art circles and to Capitan, it was clear that the miniaturistic style of realism had passed.
Gray times too fell on the mestizo businessmen of Manila. The many foreign firms that had branches in Manila found faster market for their goods in the retail store of Chinese merchants. The Chinese, in turn, by virtue of their business connections with these big foreign firms, began to move steadily toward gaining control of the retail trade, once the domain of the mestizo businessmen.
In the ambiance of this redoubtable financial losses, Capitan Ting’s adventurous son, Zacarias, set out for the province of Sorsogon about 1886, there to find better business opportunities where the Chinese had not yet gained foothold. It is said that his was the first “supermarket of Abueg town. With his marriage to a girl from nearby Masbate, Remedios Ramires, Zacarias so firmly established himself in that province that Capitan Ting felt sufficiently called upon to make the long and arduous trip to visit him.
While in faraway Sorsogon, Capitan Ting learned of a new reform introduced in Manila. In a decree signed by the Overseas Minister of Spain, the guild system was abolished and replaced by a more systematized structurazation of the municipal government itself. By a stroke of the pen, the world of the Gremio de Mestizo, in which Capitan Ting figured most prominently, was cancelled. Capitan Ting never returned to Manila. In 1896 at the age of 80, Capitan Ting died in Abueg, Sorsogon, far removed from the middle class milieu that nurtured him and gave him fame.
Rather ironically for such a meticulous portraitist, Capitan Ting’s own self-portrait does not exist today. It was kept in the house of one of his descendants in Malate, a southern district of Manila, which saw heavy damage not only during the battle for the liberation of the city in 1942, but also during two subsequent fires that leveled many houses to the ground. Yet more works of Capitan Ting, however, may surface. The Paterno family is supposed to have a representative collection. There has also been word that there are several works of Don Justiniano in Spain. When all his works are accounted for, another chapter in the life of Capitan Ting and his generation will reveal yet more delights.
To see the scanned fotos of the original1975 publication of the Archipelago magazine, please click here.
About the author: Santiago Albano Pilar is a professor of art history at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. He teaches advanced courses in art history and connoisseurship in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Pilar has authored several art books which include Juan Luna: the Filipino as a Painter, Pamana: The Jorge B. Vargas Art Collection and Domingo Celis: Inspired Calm and Harvest of Saints. He is associate editor of the Cultural Center of the Philippines‘ Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Volume IV: The Visual Arts. He was the 1980 TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) Awardee for Art History and won the Araw ng Maynila Award: Tagapag-alaga ng Sining in 1996. He is also a consultant of exhibition projects for the Ayala Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Manila and Cultural Center of the Philippines.