Hidden details of 16 watercolors by Justiniano Asuncion confirm the master’s unerring eye and the beauty of life in a microcosmos.
These works, from the Don Benito J. Legarda collection, are some of the major highlights of the León Gallery Kingly Treasures Auction this coming Saturday, December 4th, at 2 pm.
They include a faithful rendition of the men and women of the Philippines, including an ‘indio’ from Ilocos wearing a straw poncho, a Malabon fisherman in a basket-weave hat and carrying a net over his shoulder, a rice sled with its driver, a hawker of rice dressed in layers of indigo stripes, a farmer in the field as well as an old man and woman wearing the ancient ‘saya saya’ trousers.
Fetching mestizas on their way to work as well as bathing in a stream are other charming vignettes, including a chinoy in top hat and cigar. Two works are supposedly drawn from life, including a blind mendicant being led by a young boy and the other, a cockfighting veteran and his champ.
What makes the works even more fascinating is that they are all individually signed by Asuncion, a detail that makes them exceptional since watercolors signed by him are rare even in the finest museums in the United States of America.
Justiniano Asuncion is said to have been one of the most talented students at the first Philippine art school founded by Damian Domingo, a painter who was both brilliant and eventually, enormously successful. Domingo’s specialty was the miniature and appears to have mentored Asuncion in that rare art.
Thus the watercolors capture such wondrous details as the pale embroidery on a fine lawn shirt, the ram’s head on a walking cane, the light in a mestiza’s light eyes. There are many more to behold that tell the story of a Manila that was not only rich but also eminently civilized, with all the facets of fine living drawn not just from the region but foreign capitals. The working classes were painted as sturdy and handsomely dressed in finely dyed and striped clothing; the creoles of both Chinese and Spanish origin wore fine lace and gold beads. All the Filipinos enjoyed puffing on cigars and cigarettes.
These works are thus called aptly by experts as “Tipos del Pais” or “The Types of People of the Country”: a lavish souvenir if not memento of one’s foreign travels, or in this case, foreign business ventures.
Subtitled in English and signed with Asuncion’s “anglicized” name, these extremely rare works were created for the American market. Don Benito, who was an economist and a central-banker, had become familiar with the trade in the early half of the 1800s that brought Yankee entrepreneurs to Manila and Canton. They were interested in the famous hemp for New England boats, sugar for rum, and indigo for the burgeoning textile factories on the East Coast. (This explains why some of the ‘Tipos’ would eventually be donated by American sea-faring barons to Princeton and the New York Public Library.)
Legarda incidentally was one of the few historians that specialized in that early Philippine-American trade, adding another dimension to the reason that he collected these rare masterpieces. He was the author of the important work titled After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change, and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines, published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Two American trading firms are known to have operated in Manila in the 1820s : Peele Hubbell & Co. (whose American flag flies over its warehouse depicted and correctly identified by Capistrano-Baker in a unique Letras y Figuras that recently came to auction at León Gallery. That work is an extraordinary example in English, titled Views of Manila and also once belonged to Don Benito.
There are at present only a handful of works to have been signed by Justiniano Asuncion in the United States’ museum collections. In 2006, writes Capistrano-Baker, “a previously unknown and heretofore unpublished group of Tipos del Pais attributed to Asuncion in the collection of the Harvey S. Firestone Library at Princeton University came to (her) attention. This collection includes sixteen images of Philippine costumes, with four inscribed ‘Por Justiniano Assump.n año de 1843.’
The works at hand were inscribed on their cover as “Purchased 31st December 1843,” according to the notes of Don Benito J. Legarda Jr, making them the same age as the Princeton works.
[The artworks for the upcoming Kingly Treasures Auction are available for viewing from November 27 to December 3, Saturday to Friday, from 9 AM to 7 PM, at León Gallery, G/F Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legaspi Village, Makati City. The Kingly Treasures Auction 2021 is co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, and the lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel.
For further inquiries, email email@example.com or contact +632 8856-27-81. To browse the catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com. For updates, follow León Gallery on their social media pages: Facebook - www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.]
Photos from Leon Gallery