Protagonists and/in Paintings: The “Light” collection of the Vargas Museum

Protagonists are characters whose presence is the very reason why there is a story to tell. When there is a plurality of perspectives, that of the protagonist is often the first layer. In describing the artworks in this article, I focused on one character–the one I believe is the “hero” of the scene. These paintings are from the permanent collection of the University of the Philippines Vargas Museum, specifically from the section called Light as it consists of works by Filipino Ilustrados–the “enlightened” ones.

I described each piece as if the image is a narrative where the details of light and colour unravel a series of actions. When the observer engages with the story of the painting, the subject becomes a character with emotional interiority. Like in any story, the plot inevitably elects a protagonist, the role of which is to reveal and direct the unity of action in the image.


A lady clutches a bouquet as she throws her gaze beyond the frame. The country afternoon rendered her mindless of her surroundings, including the observer who would only ever see her side profile. Her eyes show an introspective divorce between consciousness and corporeality.

Next to her is her friend collecting primroses. When one steps closer to the painting, the outline of lovers in the backdrop suddenly appears as if they weren’t there before. Such is the effect of the central muse: she turns everything else peripheral. She is her own scene; the heroine of the moment. While painted in the Impressionist tradition, Juan Luna’s Picnic in Normandy is less a conformity to an art movement than a genius duet of bright everyday colours and the grand human drama.


Felix Hidalgo’s De la Salpêtrière doesn’t need an ensemble to evoke theatricality. The woman in the blue dress looks back at the observer to put the confusion to rest: She is not running away from the audience. She wants them to run away with her.

Her eyes announce a warning. “There’s something behind you.” 

What goes on in the painting is an invitation to madness. The woman longs for company to escape the horrors only she can see. The futility of her situation is seen in the smudges in her background. It is a chase difficult to win for it is her mind that is haunted.

Salpêtrière is a Parisian institution founded in 1656 as an asylum for the infirm, aged, and insane. Patients are said to have received brutal treatments.


Space is the major element of Un Patio Andaluz. It is a snapshot of an Andalusian courtyard, sporting the region’s Moorish architecture through pillars and vaults. As much as it is an interpretation of space, the painting is also a depiction of domestic life. Rafael Enriquez, Sr reminds us that a landscape is a marriage of place and its people.

The black embroidered manton of the mother elevates her maternal image in a way that reminds us of our own mothers and even our lolas. She looks at her daughter, who appears to be asking for something. The mother’s face is displeased over the behaviour of the child. Her frustration is valid as she is about to witness a tantrum while toiling at the household chores. It must be a stressful Andalusian moment taking place when the day has just begun. The rooster is not even done crowing yet.


The accused and the head of the Inquisition both wear red in a dimly lit room. They are like two patches of blood. The image is a captured moment of vulnerability where c​​hiaroscuro allegorises the battle between heresy and orthodoxy. The advocate of the Copernican hypothesis has accepted his fate and couldn’t lift his head. It is a lost contest against the Church, which refuses to accept that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.

In the Trial of Galileo, Luna used the distribution of light to show his support to the Renaissance astronomer. He placed him at the centre of the scene, receiving the highest concentration of light. As the enlightened one challenging the claims of the Scripture, Galileo becomes il Sole. The congregation surrounds him as if they orbit him. Their share of light originates from Galileo, just like how planets owe their mornings to the sun.


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