Luna and Hidalgo: 19th Century Filipino Art Virtuosos

In his 1884 speech, Dr Jose Rizal flattered his fellow Indios Bravos Felix Resureccion Hidalgo and Juan Luna by calling them people who ‘imbibed the poetry of nature’. Rizal even took the extent of saying they ‘illuminate two extremes of the globe’ with their world-class artistic gifts. Indeed, Luna and Hidalgo are brands of Filipino genius during what can only be considered as the gilded age of our country. They were among the artists who proved Indios are also capable of producing masterpieces on a par with those from the likes of Rembrandt and Velázquez. As someone who is constantly fascinated with Western heritage, I am drawn to the technique and subjects of Luna and Hidalgo. They both captured scenes and emotions with a level of sophistication that is way beyond their class. By managing to do so, their creations abolished the barriers between ‘the Orient and the Occident’, suggesting masters do not always have to be from the West.


Education and Social Relevance

The European influence in the paintings of Luna and Hidalgo is nothing less than evident. This is because of the education they received and the audience their works were made for. Luna studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando while Hidalgo attended the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. With high-end training, they were able to navigate their way around the global art scene, bagging massive accolades from different parts of the globe. While it is true that the attention they gained from foreign art connoisseurs was remarkable, one can possibly wonder what is patriotic about their activities after all.

The principal consumer of Luna and Hidalgo’s paintings was the high society of the Western world. Their theme and subjects were inspired by a wide range of narratives, from ancient Roman imperial scenes to a casual image of a Parisian café. Likewise, the technique of the two painters was highly European, with strong hints of neoclassicism and impressionism. Unlike an average Indio, both of them enjoyed the privileges of the educated and elite. And while other Filipinos back home were being enslaved under the Spanish rule, they were busy joining prestigious art competitions abroad. Despite the seeming aristocratic and comfortable lives they led, Luna and Hidalgo are considered instrumental in the advancement of the Philippines as a nation because of their passion to prove something. Their achievements were a testament of what Filipinos can achieve, and their great potential shook the Spanish colonization to the core.


I am inspired by Luna and Hidalgo’s body of work because it reminds us all why the equal distribution of opportunities is important. Perhaps their success was expected since they received decent education from the best schools in Manila and Europe. And this could have been the case for many other Indios if the same set of opportunities were afforded to them. Los Indios Bravos fought for the rights of Filipinos because they knew that great heights are only attainable for those who are given the chance to soar. This principle is relevant even in modern social setting, where access to education and wealth defines the line that separates the successful and the destitute. After hundreds of years, the solution to social disparity never changes–equality.

Major Works

Luna and Hidalgo produced some of the most celebrated paintings in history. Determining which creation has the greatest influence will always be a difficult task. Listed below are some of my favourite and seminal pieces from the two Filipino masters:

L V N A 

The Parisian Life is an absolute darling of the crowd with its interesting characters and glossy appearance. It certainly tops my list of favourite Luna paintings because of its European and aristocratic vibe. By giving it a close look, I can’t help but notice the shiny texture of the image which exudes a layer of glow when focused with light. In terms of the subject, the painting depicts a lady sitting in a café in Paris who appears to be waiting for someone. There are also three men who are sitting around the table next to hers. According to one of the interpretations by former GSIS Museum of Art Director Eric Zerrudo, the lady on the painting was a Parisian prostitute who made the men turn their heads using her sheer attractiveness.

9F4715B8-DA0D-4398-8CE5-CFBE4BCCA0CE596525A6-CF4E-4154-B544-36A655878A05Luna’s Spoliarium depicts an image of dead Roman gladiators who were being dragged for disposal, a scene which symbolises the plight of the Filipino people under the Spanish government. Luna won a gold medal for the painting at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Madrid. More than a century after bagging the huge honour for the Philippines, Luna’s Obra maestra is still shrouded in mystery.

Spoliarium has recently come under the spotlight after its boceto was auctioned off on September 22, incidentally, the day when Luna shot his wife Paz Pardo de Tavera and her mother Juliana Gorricho in 1892. A boceto is a sketch which shows the layout of a painting and serves as a guide for the actual piece. The controversial item went under the hammer for ₱63 million.

Although I am not prepared to call Spoliarium as the best artwork by Luna, my encounter with the Philippines’ largest painting on display was surreal, if nothing else. Its epic scale makes it easier for spectators to appreciate the minutest detail of the image. I admire the dark vignette effect of the painting which creates the illusion of a frame within the frame. It is also noticeable how Luna focused more on the movement of the characters rather than mere facial expression.4D99ACCC-52D6-40FB-BD4E-A18AE09E4BBAThe Portrait of a Lady has to be the most controversial piece by Luna as it is haunted by the artist’s grim past. Many believe the image is that of Luna’s wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, while other historians claim it is a portrait of a French woman by the name of Angela Douche. Douche served as a model for Luna and appeared in more than one of his paintings. The bizarre relationship of the two sparked rumours of infidelity for years. Shedding light upon the issue is vital in understanding the life of Luna, particularly because he killed his wife over an alleged extramarital affair. Whether it was Luna or Paz who committed the first move to destroy their marriage is a question historians are yet to answer.96EA20D7-3C20-4B45-B8A4-577E3F14DBCA



El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) is the Goliath of all the Hidalgo paintings. I would always choose to refer the painting using its alternate title, La Iglesia contra el Estado (The Church Against the State) because it shows the perennial competition for political power in our society. The painting captures the moment when supporters of the Archbishop of Manila, Francisco de la Cuesta, stormed the Palacio de Gobernador and killed Governor Bustamante. As a result of the murder, the Archbishop was released from prison and appointed acting Governor-General.

I find the narrative of the painting interesting because it challenges our preconceived notion of right and wrong. The painting is like an image of God’s soldiers committing the cardinal sin of murder, something that can be ironic in so many levels. Because no matter how noble the motive was, ending the life of a person can never be justified, especially one that is committed by church supporters.8C5C6165-45D0-4000-B21F-3E1286D77658Governor Dasmariñas is another artwork which depicts the relationship of the state and the church during the colonial period. It captures the moment when a Dominican friar appears to be dictating Governor Dasmariñas to accomplish some documents. The painting is a historical exposé of the supremacy of the church over the Spanish government. During the time when a critical observation of the clergy’s role in the society can win you a ticket to jail, Hidalgo must have been one of the bravest artists of his generation for using his craft in conveying social commentaries.DB115369-9256-4BD1-B2FF-805EE2E83D18La barca de Aqueronte (The Boat of Charon) is about Hidalgo flexing some serious neoclassical muscles with its mythological theme. Because of the level of mastery that Hidalgo placed into it, La barca de Aqueronte remains to be his most awarded work of art. Some of the recognition under its belt include a silver medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition, a diploma of honour from the 1891 Exposicion General de Bellas Artes in Barcelona, and a gold medal prize at the 1893 Madrid Exposicion Internacional de Bellas Artes.

Without knowing anything about the artwork, it is easy to assume that The Boat of Charon was painted by a Renaissance artist because of the use of classical antiquity as a theme. I fell in love with the painting even more when I discovered that Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno was, in fact, the inspiration of Hidalgo in creating it. It is the artist’s interpretation of damned souls travelling across the River Acheron towards the gates of hell, making La barca de Aqueronte an impressive fusion of the two things I am excessively obsessed with: literature and fine arts.F2F6F69D-538F-4CC1-A4C8-47133F66BC25Los Indios Bravos were not Filipino elitists who roamed the great cities of Europe. They were silent soldiers who used the arts as their pistol. Just as how Rizal used his novels to unmask the plight of the Filipinos under the colonial government, Luna and Hidalgo also proved that a series of brush strokes can itself be revolutionary.




One thought on “Luna and Hidalgo: 19th Century Filipino Art Virtuosos

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s