'The Philippines is jubilant. The highest honours in art imaginable have been obtained by one of her sons.'' So trumpeted Manila's leading newspaper El Commercio on July 16, 1884.
The masterful work of the 26-year-old Filipino artist Juan Luna, entitled Spoliarium, had just been judged best in the prestigious salon exhibit of Madrid of 1884, receiving the gold medal for excellence.
Spoliarium depicted in powerful, vivid strokes, the fate of fallen gladiators being dragged to an unseen pile of corpses in the notorious chamber beneath the Roman Coliseum's arena. It was a classic example of Luna's Rome/Madrid period, characterized by a dramatic and allegorical style, frequently depicting heroic figures in deep tumult, in the grip of larger-than-life themes such as courage and country. The sheer grandeur of the painting made it a symbolic and appropriate end to Luna's first artistic period. Certainly, the grand accolades it received throughout Europe marked it as the zenith of a spectacular academic career, and a high point of Filipino history. (Today the Spoliarium hangs in the Philippines National Museum and is considered a national treasure.)
In October of 1884, Luna moved to Paris and began the second, and more beguiling period of his artistic work. His style began to move away from the dark colours of the academic palette and became increasingly lighter in colour and mood. This post-academic, or Parisian period, would continue until the artist's abrupt departure from the French capital in February 1893.
During this 8 year in Paris, Luna painted Ensueqos de Amor (1886) which depicted the artist's wife intimately as she lay in bed seemingly oblivious to the artist's gaze, a work that demonstrated 'Luna at his spontaneous best' (Juan T. Gatbonton, Jeannie E. Javelosa and Lourdes Ruth R Roa ed., Art Philippines, The Crucible Workshop, Manila, 1992, p.65).
It was also during this period when Luna, alongside Dr. Jose Rizal (the Philippines' national hero), would be most active in the Philippines' Propaganda Movement. It included other prominent, young Filipino emigris, including Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin, who would work tirelessly for reforms under Spanish colonial rule. These were halcyon years for Philippines arts and letters, with Dr. Jose Rizal writing two of his most celebrated novels at this time, Noli me Tangere (Touch me not) in 1886, for which Luna contributed 21 illustrations, and El Filibusterismo (The Reign of Greed) in 1891. Luna was again at the pinnacle of his career, a renowned artist on the European continent and also a familiar of the French and Spanish royal courts. The friendship among Luna, Rizal, and Bautista Lin is evidenced by their collected exchange of letters, which documented as well their frequent gatherings in Paris (including fencing sessions in the backyard of Luna's Paris home.)
Parisian Life, (also known as Interior d'un Cafi) dated in 1892 is a work from this distinctive period. Even more importantly, it dates fro the last year of Luna's own Parisian life, painted barely a few months before the artist would be caught up in dramatic events that would climax in September 1892.
The playful, relaxed mood of the work Parisian Life, does not give the slightest hint of the tumultuous happenings to come in the artist's life, nor of the heroic paths all three men would take. Instead, it depicts a delicious slice of the artist's personal Parisian life, capturing an expedition with two of his closest friends for a casual evening in a cafi, possibly Maxim's. Dr. Josi Rizal is depicted with his back half-turned, his distinctive profile making him unmistakable. Luna sits jauntily in the center while Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin, sits closest to the lady, betraying the most vivid expression of the three. It is springtime in Paris, as suggested by the pale lavender of the woman's frock and the flowers in her hat. Certainly, it is a moment of happiness and contentment for the three gentlemen.
In just a few short months after Parisian Life would be painted, Dr. Jose Rizal and Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin would have departed for the Philippines to play out their roles in the Philippines Revolution. In February 1893, Luna himself would depart for Madrid and from there also return to his home country.
Hence, Parisian Life is possibly the last major work of Luna from this period. After his return to Manila in 1894, he traveled more often than painted, finishing only a handful of Philippines landscapes. In 1896, all three would be swept up in the outbreak of the war for independence. Rizal would meet his glorious destiny as a martyr of the Philippines Revolution and pass into history as the Philippines' most beloved hero.
Luna would return to France in 1898, appointed by the Philippines revolutionary government as member of the Parisian delegation working for the diplomatic recognition of the Philippines Republic. He would die unexpectedly in Hong Kong in 1899, en route to the Philippines.
Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin would become a clinical physician of some renown, and would continue his financial support of the Katipunan (the secret society founded to secure independence from Spain), the Philippines Revolution and, afterwards the ensuing Philippines-American War. He would continue his role as influential confidante to succeeding generations of Filipino political figures.
In the larger context of history, Parisian Life is therefore also a significant work, capturing a last gathering of great Filipinos on the eve of momentous events.
Parisian Life encapsulates the intangible ideas of the Filipino national consciousness. The painter, novelist and doctor were above all avant-garde thinkers of their time. Dressed in European top hats and coats, with an air of exuberant self-confidence as they enjoy a moment in a Parisian cafi, the 3 gentlemen have embraced the Western lifestyle while remaining passionately Filipino at heart.
While it is inevitable to perceive the work as a striking cultural and historical artifact, Parisian Life, even if it did not contain intimate portraits of the Philippines' national heroes, is a work of art of rare intrinsic beauty.
Set in the far left corner of the painting, the men are seemingly overshadowed by the prominent figure of the lady. An indefatigable painter of women, the artist was an enthusiastic observer of the fairer sex, with a keen eye for their elusive psychology and an obviously sensitive insight into their fragility and strength, happiness or solemnity. A mood of intimacy is further established with the masterfully rendered details of a deserted hat and cape, the pulled-out chair and the inquisitive glance from the top-hatted gentleman.
Parisian Life offers the best features of the artist's work from the Paris period, testifying to his sensitivity and skill in capturing a fleeting moment of ordinary life, and imbuing it with personality and universal emotions.
Interestingly, the painting was illustrated in the book, Juan Luna, The Filipino as Painter published in 1980 by the Eugenio Lopez Foundation and was then recorded as 'Whereabouts unknown'.
The work was known to have been publicly exhibited only once before this current presentation at Christie's, at the St. Louis Exposition (World's Fair) of 1904 where it was bestowed a silver medal.
Parisian Life has remained an elusive treasure of impeccable provenance, having remained in the hands of the original owner, Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin, and his family for over a century since it was painted.