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FERNANDO AMORSOLO: The First National Artist           The Philippines pride itself of having great and magnificent artists in many fields, ...

FERNANDO AMORSOLO: The First National Artist

FERNANDO AMORSOLO: The First National Artist

          The Philippines pride itself of having great and magnificent artists in many fields, though quite obscured by history because of lack of support from people in government that value politics more than arts and the sciences. Nevertheless, stars, as they say, will remain shining though obscured by the clouds.
          Fernando Amorsolo is one such star. Embodied in his own inspiration, the sun overwhelming the landscape with life-giving light, he rose from humble beginning and became the favorite portraitist and landscape painter of many Filipinos and westerners alike, and one of the Philippines’ most important master artists.

The Humble Beginning 
          Amorsolo was born in Calle Herran, Paco, Manila on May 30, 1892, to bookkeeper Pedro Amorsolo and embroiderer Bonifacia Cueto. As a child, he grew up in Daet, Camarines Norte. Upon his father’s death, Amorsolo and his mother moved back to Manila to live with painter Don Fabian de la Rosa, his mother’s cousin.
          At the age of 13, Amorsolo became an apprentice to De la Rosa, who would eventually become the advocate and guide to Amorsolo’s painting career. During this time, Amorsolo’s mother embroidered to earn money, while Amorsolo helped by drawing water color postcards and selling them to a local bookstore from two to 10 centavos a piece.
          Amorsolo’s first success as a young painter came in 1908, when his painting Leyendo el periódico ("Reading the Newspaper") took second place at the Bazar Escolta, a contest organized by the Asociacion Internacional de Artistas. Amorsolo enrolled at the Art School of the Liceo de Manila, where he earned honors for his paintings and drawings. Afterwards, he entered the University of the Philippines’ School of Fine Arts, where De la Rosa worked at the time.
          Amorsolo’s most notable work as a student at the Liceo was his painting of a young man and a young woman in a garden, which won him the first prize in the art school exhibition during his graduation year. To make money during school, Amorsolo joined competitions and did illustrations for various Philippine publications, including Severino Reyes’ first novel in Tagalog language, Parusa ng Diyos (“Punishment of God”), Iñigo Ed. Regalado’s Madaling Araw (“Early Dawn”), as well as illustrations for Camilo Osias’ Philippine Readers series, and editions of the Pasion. Amorsolo graduated with medals from the University of the Philippines in 1914.

Three lithographs of nudes: Fragrant Rose, Maple Leaves and Two Roses (c. 1919-1920)
Notice the girl in the first lithograph as the one with Amorsolo in the top photo.

Embroidery (1933),
Amorsolo’s pencil and ink drawing

          Immediately after graduation, Amorsolo worked as a draftsman for the Bureau of Public Works, as chief artist at the Pacific Commercial Company, and as a part-time instructor at his alma mater. He was the director of the U.P.’s College of Fine Arts from 1938 to 1952.

The logo of Ginebra San Miguel
still in use today was designed and painted
by Fernando Amorsolo
          Amorsolo designed the logo for Ginebra San Miguel (still in use up to the present) depicting the archangel Michael vanquishing the devil. The owner Enrique Zobel de Ayala was so impressed with him that he gave him a grant to study at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain. An unapprised sample of his works was sent to the academia and he was later surprised that the art academy accepted him not as a student but as a professor.

          Through this grant, he was able to go to Spain, where he gained influence from the works of Diego Velasquez, El Greco (Kyriakos Theotokopoulos), Francisco de Goya, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Van Dyck (Anthony Vandyke), John Singer Sargent, and Joaquin Sorolla, and visit New York City where he encountered postwar impressionism and cubism, which would be major influences on his work.

The Two Zeniths of His Career
          Amorsolo used natural light in his paintings and developed the backlighting technique, which became his artistic trademark and his greatest contribution to Philippine painting. In a typical Amorsolo painting, figures are outlined against a characteristic glow, and intense light on one part of the canvas highlights the accompanying details. Philippine sunlight was a constant feature of Amorsolo’s work.
Man With Cockerel (1939).
          During the 1920s and 1930s Amorsolo’s output of paintings was prodigious. In 1922, he painted Rice Planting, which is to become the most popular image in Philippine visual arts. Up to now, you can still see it on post cards and tourist brochures. In 1939, his oil Afternoon Meal of the Workers won first prize at the New York World’s Fair participated in by painters from 79 countries.
Afternoon Meal of the Workers (1939)
          Based on historical records and existing publication relics, the earliest regular komiks strip in the Philippines was that of Si Kiko at Si Angge, written by Iñigo Ed Regalado and illustrated by Fernando Amorsolo. It was first published in an obscure news magazine titled Telembang, the circulation of which lasted on for about three years (1922-1924). As portrayed by Amorsolo, it was a hilarious cartoon series about a husband (Kiko) and his nagger wife (Angge) and their differing views on Philippine society and politics. It also reflected the life of the Filipinos during the middle years of the American rule in the Philippines. For his works on Si Kiko at Si Angge, Amorsolo is considered as the first illustrator in the history of Philippine komiks. 

An issue of “Si Kiko at Si Angge,”
the Philippines’ first komiks strip
inside the pages of Telembang drawn by Fernando Amorsolo.
          Aside from Telembang, Amorsolo’s work also appeared in The Independent, Philippine Magazine, El Renacimiento Filipino, and Excelsior.

          Just as his career was reaching its peak, the Philippines found itself in the midst of the World War II. Even during this dark period, Amorsolo chose to portray despair not with an emotional outpouring of grief. It is very rare that a person in his paintings would be depicted screaming with rage or wailing in intense displays of emotion.  Tragedy was portrayed through subtle means.
An Amorsolo sketch of
Japanese soldiers.

          In one of his more famous works, a woman is pictured clutching her veil while kneeling in front of her dead son – apparently a guerilla soldier killed during a battle.  The woman is looking up to the sky with a calm look of sorrow on her face. The subtle and restrained depiction proved to be a more powerful portrayal as the woman’s tearless eyes conveyed a more intense form of pain. It communicated to the viewer the deep sense of loss a mother feels when her child is taken away by untimely death.

           Another painting, Depending the Filipino Woman's Honor, showcases a Filipino man holding a bolo defending a woman, his wife or daughter, from being raped by Japanese soldiers. Though the assailants are not shown in the painting, the idea is given with the Japanese cap on the floor.

Depending the Filipino Woman’s Honor (1946)

          In the period after the war, the artist resumed his rudely interrupted career. The next two decades saw the blossoming of Amorsolo’s art. He 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 and citations along the way, and was widely recognized as the most influential artist of his time.

The Sunset of His Life

          Amorsolo worked until the last years of his life. Age was starting to catch up with him, and 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 compromised vision led to wayward brush strokes of red and blue lines where a mound of earth should be. Despite these challenges, the popularity of his work barely waned.

          Amorsolo is said to have painted more than 10,000 pieces. He continued to paint even in his late 70s, despite disturbing and painful gouts in his hands. Even his late works featured the classic Amorsolo tropical sunlight. He is said to have hated “sad and gloomy” paintings, and had made only one painting in which rain appears. He was fondly called the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art.”

Shining Legacy

          Amorsolo died of heart failure at the age of 79 on April 24, 1972. Four days after his death, Amorsolo was honored as the first National Artist (Visual Arts) at the Cultural Center of the Philippines by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Self-portrait of Fernando Amorsolo given to First Lady Imelda R. Marcos
for her contribution in the institution of the National Artist Award by President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Amorsolo was the first recipient of the National Artist Award four days after his death.
The painting went missing after the ransack of Malacañang Palace during the 1986 EDSA Revolt.
          Today his paintings are valued by art collectors around the world. At a 1996 Christie’s auction, Amorsolo’s “The Marketplace” went for 174,000 dollars. At a 2001 auction in Wellesley, Massachusetts, two original 1950s paintings by Amorsolo, The Cockfight and Resting Under the Trees, were bought by a New Jersey collector for 36,000 and 31,500 dollars, respectively. In April 2002, his “Portrait of Fernanda De Jesus” was bought for 377,947 dollars. In May 2010, Amorsolo’s Fruit Gatherer was auctioned off at Christie’s for about 440,000 dollars, a record-breaker, topping 19th and 20th century European and American paintings.

The Fruit Gatherer (1950).
          At one end of the balcony inside the Malacañang Palace, there hanged a magnificent harvest scene. This is perhaps a fitting legacy that Amorsolo left for the would-be leaders of our country to look at – symbolizing that a leader should portray freedom of spirit, abundance of hope, decisiveness of intention, honor in word and in work, and clear foresight of the future.

 (Full unedited version. The published article is in MOD Magazine May 2012 issue, under the section Pinoy Pride, p.72)

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