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Betsy Westendorp: Woman, Wife, Mother, and Artist

The Spanish-Filipina artist is famed for her prolific art, comprised often of lush, soothing land-, sea-, and cloudscapes

For patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, this year began with a retrospective on the art of Betsy Westendorp, the celebrated Spanish-Filipina artist known best for her portraits of Manila and Madrid’s elite, her landscapes of Philippine terrain, her seascapes of Manila Bay, and her renderings of various Philippine flora. 


Curated by Dannie Alvarez, the exhibition, called Passages: Celebrating the Artist Journeys of Betsy Westendorp, ran from January 29 to March 15 at the Met’s ground floor Tall Galleries. The exhibition of almost 100 works presented Ms. Westendorp’s departure from Spain, her lifelong relationship with the Philippines, and the paths that would lead her to her “self-definition” as a woman, a wife, a mother, and an artist. 

After marrying Spanish-Filipino Antonio Brias in the 1950s, Ms. Westendorp remained in the Philippines, soaring to great heights in the country’s vibrant art scene. In 1976, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain bestowed upon her the distinguished Lazo de Dama—the equivalent of knighthood for women. In 2008, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. 


Last year, just before the lockdown began, Raul Francisco and Joanna Presyler-Francisco’s Provenance Art Gallery in Shangri-La at the Fort mounted an exhibition of Ms. Westendorp’s works. “Betsy, in our view, is really the artist’s artist,” the Franciscos had said. Wherever there is an exhibit of her works, there is bound to be a discussion on her enduring legacy, which only continues to soar in the recent years. 


“The greatest legacy of Ms. Betsy Westendorp are her great and magnificent works devoted to the Philippine flora, in particular, the Philippine orchid,” says Cid Reyes, writer of the exhibit’s texts. “She has set out to paint these intensely colorful impressions of nature, in a country which the artist has adopted as her own.”

For Passages’ curator Dannie Alvarez, Ms. Westendorp’s greatest legacy is the distinctive niche that is complientary to the Filipino artistic pulse. “The personal and artistic discipline of Betsy Westendorp had distinctly identified her as both Spanish and Filipina. I would compare her penchant to detail to the dainty embroidery of the delicate banana fiber textile of the Tagalas of Batangas and Laguna, and the contained tempest of her clouds to the allegorical strokes of a European maestro.”


In the forthcoming catalogue for Passages, Reyes writes: “By her own admission, Betsy was first a portraitist before becoming a painter of flowers. She believes that at its core, the art of portraiture is about character, personality, identity, dignity, and essential nature. For Betsy, presence is all.” 


And this is evident in all her work, whether portraits, seascapes, or flora. While the exhibit may have ended two weeks ago, the museum has, thankfully, launched a 3D walkthrough, available for viewing on the Metropolitan Museum of Manila’s website


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Lead photo by Denise Weldon