Images from a lost time | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Images from a lost time

/ 05:05 AM December 10, 2021

Justiniano and Mariano Asuncion were Filipino artists active in mid-19th century Manila. Mariano (1802-1885) specialized in religious paintings, while his younger brother Justiniano (1816-1901) made a living, like his teacher Damian Domingo, painting delicate works on paper depicting Philippine costumes and customs for the tourist trade. Justiniano Asuncion’s costume albums were so much in demand that, according to recent scholarship by Florina Capistrano Baker, these were copied by a Chinese workshop in Canton.

Fortunately for art historians, Chinese copyists left out the artist’s signature, making authentication simpler. Similarly, copies of Mariano Asuncion’s paintings of the Virgin Mary by artists in Manila and Laguna now floating in the overheated Manila art market can, at best, only be attributed, since there are only a handful of authentic, signed works.

Sold at auction last weekend in Leon Gallery were 16 signed Asuncion watercolors bought in Manila on Dec. 31, 1843 and repatriated a century later by the late historian Benito Legarda Jr. Documenting the collection before the sale reminded me of an album of Philippine costumes in the New York Public Library that I first saw in the 1980s. Acquired by a certain Mr. Soden of Bath in 1841, it consists of 13 plates, four of which were made “by an inferior artist the former being ill.” This album is unique for its extensive handwritten notes that supplement the images with detail and context.

On the first plate: “An exact representation of a rich mestizo. The complexion is admirably painted and likewise the dress. He is a great dandy and fond of imitating the Europeans, as you may see by his hat and umbrella. Nothing can be better than this costume in a hot country for its coolness. Three things are reversed from what we are accustomed to, for instance; the shirt being worn outside the trousers. The shirt is made from a species of grass cloth, the front, collar, and cuffs are beautifully embroidered which is very well shown in the painting; the cost depending entirely on the quantity of work upon it. This man would not think of wearing a shirt of less value than from 10 to 12 dollars. The trousers are made of strong silk of their own manufacture; stockings they are never troubled with; the shoes are in imitation of ours and made by the Chinese of whom there are a great many in Manilla. The hat, umbrella, and handkerchief are of European manufacture. The umbrella is to preserve his complexion from the sun: most people use them when walking in the heat of the day; to Europeans they are absolutely essential. This man leads a most idle dissipated life; he spends his day in gambling and cockfighting; his evening in playing and singing to his guitar; the songs are limited to very few in number, and one very common one which is a great favorite, and which everyone sings, even all the boys in your own house, is ‘Chiquitito muerte es muy dulce a probar.’ [Chiquitito, death is very sweet to try.]. At the end of the gold chain around his neck is suspended a Scapular: the Spaniards having made them all strict Catholics.”


A mestiza costume is described thus: “The blue stripe is a little jacket made of the same material as the man’s shirt; it has not so much work upon it, the cuffs only being embroidered. It reaches to the waist, and is made very loose; under it is tied, the red and yellow plaid petticoat, over which is the ‘Cabaza’; a long piece made either of silk or cotton as the wearer can afford, which is wrapped tightly around the body and the end tucked in; which if properly done never comes loose; this so tight over the hips as to appear to impede the free motion of the limbs. These ladies never deform themselves by wearing ‘bustles’; nothing being more beautiful than their natural shape. Their slippers, which are very small, only just sufficient to cover the foot, are very prettily embroidered in gold, generally done by themselves. They are so small that the little toe is always outside, which helps to keep them on. They are never worn out of doors in dirty weather, but are carried in the hand and when the Señorita arrives at her destination, she finds at the door a pan of water in which she immerses her feet before putting on the slippers. The handkerchief over her shoulders is made of piña cloth, or cloth made of the Pineapple fiber; this is peculiar to Manila, in no other part of the world has it ever been made. It is as fine or finer than the finest Cambric, and beautifully embroidered, all the señoritas excelling in that kind of work, and in doing which they spend a great portion of their time. The fairest (you needn’t laugh, for some of the mestizas are as fair as if they had been bred and born in England) pride themselves much in their hair with which their heads are most luxuriously covered; if they were seen in this country it would excite envy though it is not so fine as what European ladies can boast of; but in color and length it excels them much. The color is jet black and glossy, which must be attributed to the coconut oil of which they are not sparing and which accounts also for its great length; for it invariably extends to the knees, and very frequently to the heels; as will be seen in another painting. It is all combed to the back of the head where it is dressed; plaited or otherwise according to fancy; but it is always particularly neat.”

Images and texts from a lost time, long before smartphone selfies.


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TAGS: artist, History

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