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A Life Restored

For years, there was an aging portrait under my grandmother’s bed, wrapped in newspaper. But the moment I learned it was an Amorsolo, I knew it had to be saved. This is the story of how it happened, and how I learned about a woman who lived three generations ago.

Every family has stories. Often, these stories get told and retold, and sometimes you’re never sure of the details.

One day some years ago, my mom and I were talking about one such story. It was about a portrait that had been in the family for years. My grandmother was considering having it cleaned and restored, and she had asked my mom about ideas for where to take it.

“It would be a shame to just let it deteriorate,” my mom had said. “It is, after all, an Amorsolo.”

An Amorsolo?

“The national artist, Amorsolo?” I asked my mom over and over, in different ways.

“Yes!” she replied, almost exasperated. “There’s even one other signature right beside it, actually.”

I was getting really curious. I had to see that painting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me tell you how I got to that point.

I don’t know much about my great-grandparents, except for stories that my grandmother, Jovita, told us about her childhood. I know that their names were Jose Topacio and Juanita Stuart Topacio, and that my great-grandfather was the first Filipino Director of Posts appointed by US Governor Harrison.

I never get tired of listening to her stories, even if I had heard the same one a hundred times. “Lola, tell me about the house you grew up in,” I often ask.

Then she would tell me about their Chinese cooks, their Indian driver. She would tell me about the seamstress who would make her dresses and help my great-grandmother sew new curtains for them every year. She would always say how big her bed was. “It was so big that I could roll on it ten times, and I still wouldn’t fall off the other end!”

She loved their old house. Her eyes would light up every time she talked about it. It was this same house that that she, her siblings, and my great-grandparents had to leave when the Japanese came to Manila. My grandmother’s childhood home was taken over and used as an official Japanese residence, and later burned down after the occupation.

My grandmother and her siblings weren’t able to save many things from their home, but there was something they had managed to keep all these decades: a portrait of their mother, which their father had commissioned to hang in their living room.

No one in our family really saw much of it. We just knew that it existed. My grandmother kept it under her bed, where she knew it would be safe, wrapped in old newspapers.

And apparently the portrait was an Amorsolo.

My grandmother and her siblings weren’t able to save many things from their home, but there was something they had managed to keep all these decades: a portrait of their mother, which their father had commissioned to hang in their living room.

We set an appointment at the Ayala Museum the following week.

During the short walk from the car to the museum, I held the painting. I could tell it wasn’t in very good shape. It was kept flat only by a piece of corrugated cardboard. The newspaper in which it was wrapped had yellowed over time. I could tell my Lola was nervous about moving the painting out from under her bed, but at the same time, she was excited to have an art professional give the painting a proper diagnosis.

“Is this the painting po?” the museum staffer asked my grandmother as she put on a pair of gloves. My mom and I looked at each other and quietly laughed about how gingerly she touched the painting, compared to how casually it was handled all these years. The staffer pulled the layers of newspaper back, and there she was: my great-grandmother Juanita, with paint chipped off from portions of her face and from the embroidery on her dress. And just as my mom had said, there were two signatures on the lower right corner of the painting.

The woman examining it furrowed her brows, looking closer at the signatures through her magnifying glass. She looked up at us, “One signature is by Pablo Amorsolo, Fernando Amorsolo’s younger brother.” It turned out we had been thinking of the wrong Amorsolo brother.

“And whose is the other signature?” my mom asked.

“The other looks to be by his uncle, Fabian de la Rosa.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This painting, signed by not one, but two renowned Philippine artists, was under my grandmother’s bed all that time. We left the museum dumbfounded. The painting was dated 1935. A quick Google search of Fabian de la Rosa—master of genre in Philippine art—revealed that he passed in 1937. Why would he have had his apprentice finish that piece?

A few days later, we heard back from Ayala Museum. They offered to restore the painting on the condition that they could keep the painting as part of an exhibit for a few years, and they also recommended that we have it authenticated.

But that didn’t happen. The painting was wrapped up and put back under her bed, where it stayed for a few more years.

I’m not entirely sure why my grandmother didn’t let Ayala Museum restore it. I suspect she got cold feet, and felt more comfortable having the painting close by, as it had always been.

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Over the years, the discovery of that painting became a funny anecdote my family liked to tell. “And it’s still there until now?!”, “Don’t you want to have it restored?” and “You’re kidding!” were the most common reactions we would get whenever we told the story. I would just laugh and shrug, and set the memory of the portrait aside again.

My husband, Jaime, and I really enjoy art. When we first started dating, he actually took me to the Ayala Museum, and as we were looking through the Fabian de la Rosa section I told him about how we almost had a painting restored there. Together, we found a renewed interest in the portrait.

On March 2018, Jaime and I were invited to the opening of the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art. There, we met a handful of people whom we now consider friends, including multi-awarded artist and educator Thomas Daquioag. He showed us a piece of his that was hanging in the second floor of the museum. He had been there all week, cleaning and restoring almost all the pieces hanging in the museum.

Just as Thomas said that, Jaime nudged me. “Love, tell him about your Lola’s painting!” At that moment, everything fell into place. I called my mom and told her about Thomas. By the time we had returned from our Iloilo trip, my grandmother was on board with having him restore the painting.

Our priority was the restoration, and we had forgotten about having the painting authenticated. Luckily, Thomas knew just the people to do it. He set up a meeting with three people: Rafael Concepcion, a Fine Arts professor of Far Eastern University, specializing in art conservation; Danilo Santiago, the University of Santo Tomas Fine Arts and Design Department Chair; and Nicanor Legazpi Jr., former art curator at the National Museum of the Philippines.

I was still wondering why there were two signatures in the first place. If there was ever a group of people to ask, it was them. They speculated that, at the time, de la Rosa may have been too sick to finish it. De La Rosa had also been caring for his wife, who had cancer.

The professors noted that most of the work on the painting was done by de la Rosa, based on the brush strokes on the face, neck, and details on my great-grandmother’s dress. They surmised that Pablo Amorsolo, who was living with them at the time, finished the rest and signed it as well.

The three unanimously declared it an authentic interaction piece between the two artists. Based on that decision, they all signed an authentication certificate, and even gave Thomas advice on the best way to go about the restoration process.

“No pressure, Thomas!” I said, laughing nervously, when I handed Thomas the painting.

The month that Thomas worked on the painting gave me a little anxiety. There was always the possibility that something could go wrong. I reminded myself of all the other valuable paintings he had restored, and of his own beautiful paintings. He frequently sent us photos of his progress. While I was sure he did that because he was proud of his work, I think he also wanted to put our minds at ease.

Thomas worked with extreme detail, but he worked quickly; I suspect he was just as excited about seeing the portrait close to its original form. He even picked out a frame and put it under glass to protect it—a far cry from the newspaper and cardboard that had housed it for several decades. My great-grandmother’s portrait was then fit to withstand another lifetime.

My grandmother turned 93 this year, and we unveiled the restored painting in time for her birthday. She told me how happy she was that it was finally finished, and that she had wanted to see it restored for so long. As we talked about it, all my favorite stories of her childhood naturally came back, so I asked her again about the house she grew up in: the one with the Chinese cook, the Indian driver. She was only too happy tell me the story again, as if it were the first time I had asked.

Much like her other stories, the story of this portrait is one I won’t tire of telling. Having been through the war, stored under the bed wrapped in newspaper, then rescued from both: this is a painting whose story involves four generations of my family. And that, more than anything, makes it one of our greatest treasures.

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