Cover Portrait of Manuel Luna (Photo:Iluminada Fajardo-Castigador/Flickr)

There is a spate of life-grappling stories that surround Juan Luna, one of the Philippines' most celebrated artists. The trail he left behind in the field of arts and culture has been lavished by much recognition and scrutiny. In this article, we explore a handful of his most intriguing works

In the Philippines, a society awash by fine arts, it is impossible to miss the indubitable genius of Juan Luna. A Filipino painter, sculptor, and political activist during the Philippine Revolution, Luna was among the very first Filipinos who captivated the international stage. 

His lucrative career as a painter catapulted him into the radar of the world's finest critics and art enthusiasts. There was a time when Luna's name and the story of his brilliance traversed Europe through the words of his dumbfounded audiences in the West. 

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Portrait of Manuel Luna (Photo:NCCA Official/Flickr)
Above Portrait of Manuel Luna (Photo:NCCA Official/Flickr)

In 1884, Luna bagged the coveted gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts, along with fellow Filipino painter Félix Resurrección who earned the silver medal.

Their triumph was a big score for the Propaganda Movement and the Ilustrados who sought to free the Philippines from the grip of its Spanish colonisers.

See also: Juan Luna: The Tragic Life and Legacy of The Renowned Filipino Master

Like many artists, Luna has produced some of the most intriguing paintings. We have listed them down below:

1. Spoliarium

Anybody who has ever been to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila surely caught a glimpse of the magnificent Spoliarium, the award-winning work that Luna submitted to the prestigious Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884. With a size of 4.2 x 7.6 metres, it is the largest oil painting on canvas in the Philippines. 

Through this work, Luna was able to highlight the hardships of the Filipino masses under the rule of the Spaniards. Spoliarium portrays defeated gladiators in the arena being dragged into a pile of other corpses. 

On the left side of the painting, there is a group of spectators viewing the harrowing event with a variety of expressions; meanwhile, the right side shows a grieving woman in torn and shabby clothing. 

Tatler Trivia: the 2015 film Heneral Luna featuring Volpi Cup Best Actor John Arcilla, recreates the iconic painting in one of its climactic scenes - a well-received easter egg for art and history buffs. 

2. The Parisian Life

The Parisian Life or Interior d'un Cafi is an 1892 oil on canvas impressionist painting by Luna. The work, which shows an interior scene in a café with a full-body image of a woman seated prominently on a banquette and three men at the far left corner sitting down on a couch, is one of the impressionist masterpieces that the artist made during his Paris sojourn from October 1884 to February 1893.

Luna's critics say that the painting is a rich portrayal of contemporary norms put upon women. They believe that the woman in the cafe is a prostitute who is the subject of the male gaze. Back in the day, Parisian women who did not conform to the traditional role of a femme honnête (respectable woman) were deemed to be in the sex trade.

Tatler Trivia: Luna is known as an unwearied painter of women. Many historical accounts noted that he used to pay prostitutes and use them as subjects of his paintings.

Another interpretation is from the museum director of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) Eric Zerrudo who likened the woman's figure to the archipelago of the Philippines.

Related: Dr Jose Rizal: Who are the Women in the National Hero's Life?

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The "geographical likeness" of Luna's muse in The Parisian Life to the Philippine archipelago (Photo: Blog Watch)
Above The "geographical likeness" of Luna's muse in The Parisian Life to the Philippine archipelago (Photo: Blog Watch)

The last interpretation is quite biographical, the painting hints at Luna’s personal and marital problems.

It is said that at the time when Parisian Life was painted in 1892, Luna's personal life was in a bad state. He was struggling with personal tragedies including the recent death of his infant daughter and his growing suspicion that his wife was having an affair with a French doctor.


In 2002, the GSIS bought The Parisian Life at a Hong Kong auction for PHP46 million. This move was questioned by groups such as the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement for Government Employees (Courage) who firmly stated that the government did nothing but squander the Filipino taxpayers' money.

"It is appalling for us GSIS members to learn only from the news how they spent our money, which came from our sweat and blood," Courage said in a 2002 statement.

To date, some stories suggest that the National Museum keeps Luna's painting well guarded because "angry pensioners have been known to visit and spit on it".

3. Tampuhan

Luna's infamous Tampuhan (sulking) is an 1895 classic oil on canvas impressionist painting that depicts a Filipino man and woman facing each other's backs after a lovers' quarrel. The man can be seen looking out the street beside a Capiz shell window while the woman in a Maria Clara gown stares at the floor. 

Many people claimed that the original model of Luna’s Tampuhan is Emiliana Trinidad, the ancestor of the painting's owner who allegedly posed for Luna's other painting La Bulaqueña.

Critics of Tampuhan say that lovers' quarrel is not really the main theme of the painting. Rather, it shows a fiesta or special occasion outside, being watched by the man from the inside. The red cloth hanging on the ledge of the window in front of the "lovers' balcony" implies that an event is occurring.

More from Tatler: 11 of the Most Famous Filipino Artists and their Artworks: Amorsolo, Bencab, And More

4. Portrait of a Lady

There is a dark and heavy tragedy allegedly attached to Luna's Portrait of a Lady and it has something to do with the artist's temperance towards his wife Maria de la "Paz" Pardo de Tavera, who many believe is the woman in the painting. 

At the tender age of 29 and just two years after his Spoliarium won him fame, Luna managed to marry the love of his life, Paz. The couple settled in France where Paz bore their son Andres.

Luna and Paz's married life was far from perfect, evident in the ghastly crime that the artist committed in their Paris home. Overwhelming with feelings, Luna shot his wife and mother-in-law Julia Gorricho to death. Meanwhile, Paz's brother Felix Pardo de Tavera left the scene fatally wounded. It was not too long until European newspapers echoed the gruesome tragedy that transpired between Luna and his wife's family. It is believed that the reason for such a crime was Luna's jealousy against a certain Monsieur Dussaq.

Read more: Philippine Artworks With Contested Histories: Felix Hidalgo's Masterpiece, Juan Luna's Women, Jose Rizal's Wedding And More

Tatler Trivia: Portrait of a Lady is perhaps the most controversial painting of Juan Luna because of its contested history. While many believe that the subject was inspired by Paz, others contradict this idea as the anatomical depiction do not fit her physical descriptions. There were also some accounts pertaining to the succeeding owners of the said painting having experienced similar crimes of passion after acquiring the said painting.

Read more: Philippine Artworks with Contested Histories

5. Daphne Y Cleo

During his stay in Rome, Luna strived to widen his knowledge and thirst for art. There he was exposed to the immortal works of Renaissance master painters and created Daphne Y Cleo for which he bagged a silver palette from the Liceo Artistico de Manila.

Despite being one of his most talked-about creations, photos of the said painting are nowhere to be seen online.

6. Death of Cleopatra

Luna's Death of Cleopatra pictures the death of the famous Egyptian queen. In the painting, Cleopatra's lifeless body lies on the bed as her maid collapses on the floor. The other servant is on the verge of falling over.

Smoke from a lamp in the royal's quarters hovers above them, signifying that the queen has just given up. At the foot of the pillar, there is a barely visible snake tail slithering away–Cleopatra has killed herself by the bite of a poisonous snake. 

The painting was awarded a Second Class medal at Spain’s national exhibition in 1881, the highest artistic achievement received by any Filipino at the time.

Tatler Trivia: The Death of Cleopatra had not been shown since 1887, this was until the National Gallery of Singapore displayed it in 2017.


7. The Blood Compact

Luna was obliged to paint The Blood Compact for the Ayuntamiento de Manila when he was granted a pensionado-ship that enabled him to continue studying painting in Rome.

It was one of the three paintings that Luna gave the Spanish colonizers, the other two being Don Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a painting that was burned during the Philippine-Spanish war, and Governor Ramon Blanco, a work that became a part of the Lopez Museum collection

With the help of José Rizal and Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, Luna has completed The Blood Compact in 1886, one year after he moved to Paris to open an art studio. As of this post, the painting is currently displayed at the grand staircase of the Malacañan Palace.


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