The lady in the portrait
Despite the pre-auction controversy on Facebook regarding the identity of the sitter, a portrait of a young lady by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo advertised as “Nellie Boustead, eighth of the nine girlfriends of Rizal” sold last Dec. 2 for over P8 million. One cannot tell if that price, quite fair for an authentic work in a sea of fakes circulating in the art market, was due to the Rizal connection or not. Textbook history paints Rizal not just as a patriot, but as a serial womanizer that did not result in marriage, domesticity, and children. Depending on the teacher or the textbook used in school, the names of the eight women in Rizal’s life are memorized for quizzes. However, my research brings the total to 13. More if we include stray references or footnotes in the national hero’s short and tragic life.
Now we can study the portrait by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo more closely to come up with a definitive identification. What is confused and confusing in this segment of Rizal’s love life are two Boustead sisters: Nellie or Helen that Rizal almost married, and the younger Adelina sometimes associated with him. I have yet to secure a copy of the December 1929 issue of The Philippines Herald where Nellie’s letters are reproduced because the originals are not extant. From these it is clear that: Rizal formally asked Eduardo Boustead for his daughter’s hand in marriage; that Eduardo did not have a problem with Rizal; that Mrs. Boustead did not approve, or needed some convincing; that Nellie would accept if Rizal converted; that Rizal could not be Protestant so Nellie broke off the engagement.
While Rizal’s letters and diaries are silent on the matter, the letters of his friends are the opposite. Valentin Ventura wrote: “I congratulate you on having been jilted by your little lassie because it saves you various things: money, time, and… providence.” Marcelo H. del Pilar scribbled on a letter Mariano Ponce posted: ”In the continuation of the Noli, the o may be changed into E. [Neli] Be very careful not to let that happen or may it be so. Please greet mother and daughter for me, especially the E in Noli.” Note is signed with Del Pilar’s nickname “Selong.”
Tomas Arejola, a friend from Bicol, sent unsolicited advice:
“In your letter you talk repeatedly of Boustead who can be a madame [Mrs.] or a mademoiselle [Miss]. Several times here since last year I have been told about this young woman who, according to your letter, is also a Filipino. They told me that she is highly commendable for her very thorough education, her very beautiful moral and physical qualities, and, in addition, for being a Filipino. On this occasion and all the time you are there exposed to the warmth of the treatment and attentions of that family, may I take the liberty of making the following reflections…I know that you are now free from your engagement in the Philippines. [Leonor Rivera, Rizal’s fiancé, married an Englishman.] On the other hand, while conditions there are not altered, your permanence in our country is not advisable; and even if it were so, they would never leave you in peace at your home. Consequently by marrying there, I fear that instead of happiness, you would only find bitterness and troubles. And what is the remedy? What is the proper solution in the face of such well-founded fears? See if Mlle. Boustead suits you, court here, and marry here, and we are here to applaud such a good act.”
Then there is Antonio Luna who gave up Nellie for Rizal:
“With respect to Nelly, frankly, I think there is nothing between us more than one of those friendships enlivened by being fellow countrymen. It seems to me that there is nothing more. My word of honor, I had been her fiancé, we wrote to each other. I liked her because I knew how worthy she was, but circumstances beyond our control made all that happiness one cherished evaporate. She is good; she is naturally endowed with qualities admirable in a young woman and I believe that she will bring happiness not only to you, but to any other young man who is worthy of her. I have prolonged this letter, lad. I congratulate you as one congratulates a friend…”
All this may be irrelevant to Philippine history, but serves to remind us that our heroes were made of flesh and blood like you and me.
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