The Impressionist Félix Resurrección Hidalgo’s painting, 'La Pintura,' features an image of a woman with her back almost completely turned to the viewer. Her ivory skin narrowly exposed, she has long, blonde hair tied almost carelessly with a red bow, the color of which provides contrast to her light blue Victorian dress. Her left arm clings to a palette, and her right hand lightly holds a paint brush—all while she stares at a lightly colored canvas. She is just a girl standing in front of a painting, or so she would have you believe.
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The painting is the piece de resistance in the Salcedo Auctions’ biggest auction for the year. La Pintura, or “the painting,” could give another record-breaking feat for the auction house which in September 2018 sold a boceto of perhaps the most important Filipino artwork, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, at the hammer price of PhP 73,584,000. While the road to the sale of that Luna study was replete with controversy, questions over authenticity, and the public surfacing of another boceto at the last minute, the auction house’s Ramon “Richie” E.S. Lerma and company prefer this year’s auction to evoke the same characteristics as the Hidalgo painting. “La Pintura is a pretty painting. There’s no gore, there’s no conflict. It’s just simply Hidalgo.”
Who’s that girl?
The real inspiration behind the painting could only be left to conjectures. Some say she was inspired by one of the ilustrados, Nellie Boustead, who also happened to be our national hero Jose Rizal’s girlfriend at one point. The catalogue for the September 2019 auction shows photographs were Hidalgo and Boustead were in “close physical proximity,” implying a “personal connection.”
While the woman in the painting has white skin and blonde hair, Boustead is half-English, half-Filipina, but there are some photographs of her showing her blonde streaks. The subject’s sense of style, too, is reminiscent of Boustead’s waist-hugging, high-collared dresses.
Others, however, repeatedly suggest that this woman might be Hidalgo’s lover, Maria Yrittia. Not much is known about Yrittia, except that she was living with Hidalgo for a long time, and was his muse. It was also believed that their relationship was mostly hidden from the public.
Lerma concludes, “Knowing that Maria Yrittia was Hidalgo’s partner, an abiding presence, and constant model, and that Rizal himself was in a relationship with Boustead until she ended it in a letter to him in April 1891, it could perhaps be in the realm of possibility that the artist’s quiet admiration of his subject from a distance, in the same way that the viewer gazes with mesmeric wonder at La Pintura, is true.”
But beyond the question of who the lady was modeled after, Lerma is quick to stress that the painting shows Hidalgo as ahead of his time. He undermined established notions by painting a woman —instead of a man—to represent an artist. It is, for Lerma “the transformative light of progress and liberalism” shining through “in the exalted art of a Filipino.”
Where did it come from?
But what is most certain about the painting’s history is that it has been in the possession of the Vazquez Castiñeira family for almost 130 years, specifically the descendants of Don Xose Vasquez Castiñeira, a former mayor in Spain. The first time Lerma traveled to Spain to see the Spoliarium’s boceto, he glimpsed the presence of the Hidalgo painting in the very house of the boceto’s custodians.
The La Pintura and other important art collections were inherited by Don Xose’s son, Don Francisco Vazquez Gayoso, and were later handed over to Gayoso’s wife, Doña Maria Nuñez. Nuñez passed away around 1992 and, because she never bore any children, she bequeathed the paintings to two branches of her family.
According to the catalogue for the September auction, whose text was written by Lerma, “The family of the present owners of the work continue to believe that it was acquired [by Vazquez Castiñeira] from the heirs of Don Matías López (1825-1891).” López was the commissioner of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. It was in this exposition where Hidalgo’s works, including the La Pintura, were exhibited. Lopez was also one of the neighbors of the Vazquez Castiñeiras.
However, Lerma assumes that the owners’ belief is based on “a very serendipitous coincidence.” He writes, “And that in fact all of the Filipino artworks in the possession of the Vazquez Castiñeira heirs had come to the family from Pedro Paterno (1857-1911).”
Paterno is born from a rich Chinese-Filipino family in Sta. Cruz, Manila. He studied in Spain, starting at the age of 14. He is known in his elite circle as an art patron, and one of the major supporters of Hidalgo and Luna.
In 1893, Spanish politician and writer Segismundo Moret asked Paterno to present some artworks for the Sala XIII: Sala de Filipinas, at the 1893 Exposición Histórico-Natural y Etnográfica (Historical-
On the exhibit’s catalogue (which can now be found at the Museo Arqueologico in Madrid, Spain), 'La Pintura' was mentioned, together with Luna’s 'España y Filipinas' (which is now at the National Gallery Singapore, Singapore) and the boceto for Spoliarium.
However, while evidence showed that most works were of Paterno’s, there is no concrete proof that says that the 'La Pintura' was under his possession at the time. What was clear was that at some point, the three paintings mentioned above were bought by Vazquez Castiñeira.
La Pintura arrived in the Philippines for the first time in May this year, and will be auctioned off on the 21st of the month at the Peninsula Manila. At present, there is another piece listed in the 1893 catalogue that is being sought after by many art experts: Luna’s 'La Batalla de Lepanto' (The Battle of Lepanto). “Everybody’s looking for it,” Lerma tells ANCX. “It’s not with the Castiñeiras.” The work should surface sooner or later; beauty, like the way L'a Pintura' practically winked at Lerma when he first visited the Castiñeiras, often has a way of revealing itself.
Photographs courtesy of Salcedo Auctions