10 Must-See Masterpieces at the National Museum of the Philippines

Aside from Juan Luna's "Spoliarium."

(SPOT.ph) Filipino stories are woven into the fabric of every piece of art you’ll find at the National Museum of Fine Arts. Of course, everyone knows you should see Juan Luna's "Spoliarium," but while you're there, make sure to check out other worthy paintings. Each work is a history lesson with our country’s greatest artists reaching out through the canvas to tell us of their experiences, their points of view, and the Philippines and the world they encountered during their time. Spend an afternoon at the National Museum and take a walk down memory lane. Don’t forget, entrance is free! 


“Portrait of a Lady (Mi Novia / Portrait of Paz Pardo de Tavera)” (1885)

Artist: Juan Luna Y Novicio
Location: Gallery III, South Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

Unlike Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium,” “Portrait of a Lady” is not four meters tall and seven meters wide, but this piece has its own story to tell. It features a beautiful pious woman in bed that certainly draws your eye, while the history surrounding the subject is just as noteworthy. Past owners of the painting were rumored to have met misfortune shortly after purchasing this specific painting, including Imelda Marcos—its last known owner. 

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“La Barca de Aqueronte” (1887)

Artist: Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo
Location: Gallery III, South Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

Also known as “The Boat of Charon,” this piece was inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Inferno which Felix Hidalgo read while he was in Italy. It’s a very graphic painting that shows how Charon mercilessly ushered condemned souls to the place of their eternal damnation. This painting won Hidalgo a plethora of awards in the 19th Century, cementing his place as one of the great Filipino painters in history. He also painted “La Laguna Estigia” (or “The River Styx”) based on the same Alighieri classic. Look for this piece after seeing Hidalgo's most notable painting in the museum, "El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante," which is displayed opposite "Spoliarium." 


“Recuerdo de Patay (Memento Mori) of a Child” (1896)

Artist: Simon Flores Y De La Rosa
Location: Fundacion Santiago Gallery (Gallery IV), South Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

You don’t often see paintings of the dead, let alone paintings of dead children. The title gives it away, but if you didn't know what this painting was called, you might only see it as a sleeping child. This piece by Simon Flores is particularly eerie, with the child serenely lying in a small bed, in his best clothes, adorned with fresh flowers, and the shadow of a smile on his face. During the 19th Century, commissioning paintings like these was a popular way to remember a recently deceased loved one. 


“The Burning of Manila” (1942)

Artist: Fernando Amorsolo Y Cueto
Location: Silvina & Juan C. Laya Hall (Gallery VIII), North Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

Fernando Amorsolo was a known portraitist and a painter of rural Filipino life, but there was an obvious shift in his works during World War II. Where he used to paint idyllic landscapes and beautiful Filipina women, he shifted to depicting the destruction caused by war. In this piece, Manila is ravaged and almost engulfed in flames. Upon closer inspection, you can also see Filipinos fleeing from the scene, carrying their meager possessions. 


“Rape and Massacre in Ermita” (1947)

Artist: Diosdado M. Lorenzo
Location: Silvina & Juan C. Laya Hall (Gallery VIII), North Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

With bright and striking colors—a style Diosdado M. Lorenzo is known for, this particularly haunting image of violence immediately catches your attention. It depicts a typical scenario during World War II where Imperial Japanese soldiers attack a Filipino home in Ermita. Lorenzo showed with harrowing clarity how Filipino men were slain, women were raped, and helpless children were orphaned when Japanese soldiers attacked. 


“The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines” (1953)

Artist: Carlos “Botong” Francisco
Location: Museum Foundation of the Philippines Hall (Gallery X), North Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

Created by celebrated muralist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines” is a series of four paintings originally commissioned to be on display at the Philippine General Hospital. It depicts the fascinating evolution of the practice of medicine in the country, from tribal practices to the rise of modern medicine in the '50s. 

Once put on display at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) lobby, these paintings were constantly exposed to the elements, requiring them to undergo restoration. Eventually, they were moved to the National Museum. High-quality replicas of these paintings are still on display at the PGH. 


“A Tragic Lesson (The Fall of Bataan)” (1957)

Artist: Gene Cabrera
Location: Silvina & Juan C. Laya Hall (Gallery VIII), North Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

In Gene Cabrera’s painting, the skulls stare out into the audience as a reminder of the devastation that can occur when people are at war, take for example the men and women who were still at their prime when conflict struck the Philippines. The title “A Tragic Lesson” gives it newfound relevance in these tumultuous times, reminding those who view it that we’ve been here before and this is what happened. 


“Planting of the First Cross” (1965)

Artist: Vicente S. Manansala
Location: GSIS Northwest Hall (Gallery XXIII), North Wing Galleries, Level 3 (Senate Floor) 

Vicente Manansala vividly captured the birth of Christianity in the Philippines in this historical artwork. It features Filipinos in 1521 as they stand with curiosity and interest while Spanish soldiers erect the country’s first cross—the same one that still stands in Cebu. The piece combines the artist’s mastery of both traditional and modern painting techniques, as well as his unique style of “transparent cubism.” 


“Noli Me Tangere” (1984)

Artist: Leonardo Cruz
Location: Gallery V, South Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

Gallery V of the National Museum is dedicated to artworks inspired by Jose Rizal. Amidst all the portraits done by many prominent artists, this mesmerizing piece by Leonardo Cruz combines scenes from one of the hero’s most important literary works, Noli Me Tangere. Cruz was so inspired by the novel that he created a series of 28 paintings depicting scenes from the book. 


“Doomed Family” (1945)

Artists: Dominador Castaneda
Location: Silvina & Juan C. Laya Hall (Gallery VIII), North Wing Galleries, Level 2 (House Floor) 

A contemporary of Amorsolo, Dominador Castaneda also painted about the atrocities of World War II. In this particularly harrowing piece, a dead Filipina lies exposed while the rest of the family are bound and bruised. Through this painting and other pieces of its time, artists depict the horrors of war as a personal one. There were mass casualties, yes, but the most chilling attacks happen when they struck inside the homes. 

The National Museum of Fine Arts (formerly known as the National Art Gallery) is along Padre Burgos Avenue across from the National Museum of Anthropology on the eastern side of Rizal Park in Manila. Both facilities of the National Museum of the Philippines are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Tuesday to Sunday). For more information, follow National Museum on Facebook. 


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