Thursday, April 29, 2010


In 1942, when the Japanese forced the Gowen family to leave Besao and live in an internment camp in Manila, the people of Besao gathered the Gowen’s most prized possessions from the rectory. Risking their lives, they snuck off into the mountains, buried and hid that which they had collected, in hopes that someday they would be returned to their rightful owners. Included were: fine china sets, jewelry, birth certificates, baptism, confirmation, and marriage records of St. Benedict’s Church dating back to 1910, and one lone painting given to Rev. Vincent Gowen by his wife.
Years later, when the war had ended, the Besaos went back to the mountains, turned the soil yet again and there emerged the boxes that they had buried that fateful night. They had survived the war together.
Shipped off to the United States, the painting hung in the Gowen family home in Seattle, Washington for the past sixty years.
This April, the painting, informally called “The Lady,” returned home to the Philippines for the Centennial Celebration of St. Benedict’s Parish. Many of the Besaos that hid the painting at the brink of WWII are still alive today, and were so thrilled to see the painting again. A painting that they risked their lives to preserve.We had a reception and blessing of the beautiful piece at Brent International School Reflection Center in Baguio, the Episcopal school where the painting is to be housed.The painting will hang in the reflection center for two reasons. First, because it is a more secure place, and second, because it is more accessible to those who wish to marvel at its beauty.
The Episcopal Church in the Philippines is praying that people from all over the world will be encouraged to donate to St. James Episcopal High School in Besao on behalf of “The Lady” and her incredible story. As a teacher at St. James, I have discovered that it costs less than $100 to send one student to our school for an entire year! If you would like to sponsor a student of St. James Episcopal High School, I would be proud to assist in the formation of that special relationship.
At the reception, the school’s visual and performing arts teacher, Mr. Bob Joaquin, gave a reflection on the painting. This is what he had to say, “When I pulled this painting out of the box with the help of Mrs. Daoey last Saturday and finally saw it, I immediately looked for the famed signature. When I found it and it matched how he signs his works, I just had to do what I was not supposed to do, to touch it, very gently.
It was painted in 1915. Amorsolo was 23. The peculiar lighting of the painting from the inside out was very subtle. Something that took some 15 years more to become his artistic trademark and greatest contribution to Philippine painting.
I have never seen this painting in print so I suggested to Mrs. Daoey to have it authenticated at the Central Bank Main in Manila. That way, its existence will be acknowledged and recorded. Pretty much like people, masterpieces like these don’t exist without ‘birth’ certificates’.
Fernando Amorsolo painted the Filipinas as mestizas with round faces and lively eyes like most of his family members. He never painted them chinky eyed. With ‘The Lady’, we will never know. He rarely painted them dark skinned too, instead, often in blushing peach. I am sure ‘The Lady’, as she is fondly called by the Gowens, was all that when she was younger. The time film on the painting has muted the vibrant colors substantially. And it could have been retouched with much more care. I actually volunteered to retouch the ‘The Lady’ to Mrs. Daoey-going as far as telling her I could replicate her for security reasons.
Amorsolo was educated in the classical tradition and has always rejected the Western ideals of beauty in favor of the Filipino mestizos and mestizas. Nevertheless, he was the favorite Filipino artists of the Americans during the Commonwealth period. To my knowledge there is only one other painting by Amorsolo in Baguio. It depicts General Yamashita’s surrender to the Americans. It hangs in the living room of the American Ambassador’s Palace in Camp John Hay.
Critics are one in saying that Amorsolo’s best works are those of his early days as a painter. ‘The Lady‘, was painted when he was barely 23. And I am pretty sure that unlike his later works, ‘The Lady’, was painted from life.
When a painter paints, he wants to record or preserve what he saw for others to see. Most of the time we painters paint what to us are fleeting moments or scenes we believe are beautiful but aren’t going to be there for us to see for more than a lifetime. We call them endangered scenes. True enough for Amorsolo and his ‘lady’, you don’t see maidens washing clothes in rivers these days, not here, not even in the provinces and certainly not in the nude. Not only are we running out of rivers fit to wash in, ladies would rather leave the washing to machines nowadays.
The most expensive Amorsolo was bought for U.S. $377,947 at Christie’s in April 2002. It was a portrait of a woman. It is humbling to be hanging next to an Amorsolo inside this reflection center. The only other painting in this room being mine.
To the Gowen family, thank you very much. I can’t wait to bring my art students over to meet ‘The Lady’, and the most important Filipino painter of all time.
It’s a great afternoon. It’s unbelievable.”
It is quite an unbelievable story, but this is quite an unbelievable place! The people of Besao have a rich history that is not spoken of nearly enough. I hope that you will read Rev. Vincent H. Gowen’s Book, Sunrise to Sunrise, and become even more amazed at this place and these people who have become a part of me in the way that they were a part of him.
Melanie West Goes…Amorsolo

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