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Fascinating Women: Betsy Westendorp (In Memoriam)

Portraits of a Mother, Artist, and Grandmother

The gallery echoes with sounds of artworks being carefully shuffled around and installed by gloved attendants as Salcedo Auctions prepares for its first major auction of the year. Amid the hum of activity is the sound of wood being hammered into place to stretch a large floral painting by Betsy Westendorp. The artist’s daughter, Carmen Brias, is on hand to oversee the process, and beside her is her daughter Carla who owns the painting. 

Westendorp’s daughter, Carmen Brias helping stretch her mother’s canvas, painted in 1998. | Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

“Everything was in her mind,” shares Carmen about how her mother created her masterpieces. “She had a special machine that rolls up her huge canvases, so she could paint without using the staircase. She started from up to down, like a scanner. I don’t know how she managed to have the whole scenery in her mind.”

Perhaps, it was simply the genius of a widely acclaimed visual artist and portraitist of over seven decades. Betsy Westendorp made a name in the Philippines and Spain for her portraits of high-society and royalty, and large canvases of flora, skies, and landscapes. 

One of Betsy Westendorp’s last portraits, taken in 2018, Manila. | Carla Aguirre de Cárcer Brias

She passed away on November 23 last year in Madrid – a couple of weeks shy of her 95th birthday on December 14. 

Throughout her artistic career, Betsy had received numerous accolades, including the Lazo de Dama de la Orden de Isabela Catolica (Order of Isabella the Catholic), and the Presidential Medal of Merit for Art and Culture in 2008. She was reportedly known as the “Pintora de Principes” in Spain for painting the portraits of the royal children. 

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However, for Carmen, Betsy was simply “Mami.” And for Carla, she was “Lola.”

Betsy, the mother 

“I can’t complain. I’ve always been pampered by her,” Carmen notes while describing her relationship with her mother. She is the youngest of three daughters (older sisters named Isabel and Sylvia) Betsy had with husband, Antonio ‘Tony’ Brias, whom she met in Spain and married shortly after. At the age of 22, Betsy took a leap of faith and left her life in Spain behind, moving to the Philippines without knowing what the future held. 

“But she loved it,” Carmen shares. “Every moment of it. The family of my father was very warm and welcoming. She always felt good in the Philippines. But she was also very brave to come to the Philippines back then. It was very far away from Spain.”

Westendorp with her husband and three young children (left to right, Sylvia, Carmen and Isabel) in Manila. “She wore black during her wedding to our father,” says Carmen Brias, “because her parents were against the marriage.” | Courtesy of the Betsy Westendorp Family

Betsy and Tony would grow a family in the Philippines for fourteen years, until they moved back to Spain when Tony retired as an executive at San Miguel Corporation. It was in Spain when Betsy’s artistic career took a turn to portraiture. She was invited by the then Philippine ambassador to Spain to do portraits of the royal children, and soon, she was back in the Philippines painting the country’s top leaders and the women of high society. 

Westendorp dolled up for a portrait sitting with Fernando Amorsolo in 1955 | Courtesy of the Betsy Westendorp Family

“I remember very well when she painted Imelda Marcos in Malacañang.” Carmen recalls. It was her mother’s patience that made a huge impression on her, not just for this particular client but for all of the persons she painted. “I also remember when the revolution came, and it struck me that they threw [Mrs.] Marcos’ painting out of the window. But she told me, ‘Don’t worry. I have another one’,” Carmen laughs. “She painted two.”

There’s a certain humor to the story and this, perhaps, was the side of Betsy that was seldom seen. Although she was often portrayed as a paragon of refined sophistication and elegance, one might wonder if there ever was a time that she lost her poise. 

A young Betsy Westendorp with her pet dog, 1945, Madrid. | Courtesy of the Betsy Westendorp Family

“Yes,” says Carmen of her mother. “Once she got really, really angry, and she broke a plate. That was her biggest expression of anger.” Asked if she got scared of the outburst, Carmen replies. “No. I told her, ‘Good for you.’”

“She was very protective,” Carla shares. Her grandmother was very cautious for her and her cousins: Isabel’s son Ian, who died in 2006; and Sylvia’s daughters Cristina and Inez. When Carla was in the Philippines, Betsy would follow the young woman when she would go out, wanting to make sure that she was okay.

Betsy Westendorp's daughter, Carmen Brias with her own daughter, Carla Brias. | Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

Carmen and Carla share more intimate details about Betsy that were seldom discussed about the artist, offering a unique perspective from those who loved her dearly. Through their anecdotes, you begin to learn more about Betsy–like how she always wore makeup at home and took great care of her hair, or that she had a deep love for paella and, for that matter, Spanish cuisine. Behind her graceful demeanor, Betsy had a youthful spirit and a personality that endeared her to friends of all ages.

It was not also lost on Carmen how she witnessed her mother become a widow when she was 47 years old. “She became a widow very young. And we were children. We were selfish. We didn’t know how to help her.”

Westendorp with her husband, Antonio Brias, and three children (left to right), Carmen, Isabel and Sylvia, in Manila. | Courtesy of the Betsy Westendorp Family

Betsy and her family would unfortunately experience another heartbreaking loss. Ten years after Ian’s passing in 2006, his mother Isabel fell ill and also passed away. It was a painful experience for everyone, but Betsy remained strong and resolute. Despite the deep sense of loss, she did not succumb to despair. She continued to face life’s challenges with an unwavering spirit. 

“She kept on through her painting,” says Carmen. For Betsy, painting became a refuge that she turned to find comfort and solace. 

Westendorp painting in her studio. | Carla Aguirre de Cárcer Brias
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Betsy, the artist

“She was born a painter,” Carmen says of her mother, who started making portraits when she was nine years old. Betsy was always painting since she was a little girl, initially doing portraits of her parents and family. 

Betsy’s love for flowers was unparalleled, but her admiration for orchids was something truly special. In Spain, she looked to the milflores for inspiration. Her art often reflected this love, as seen in her floralscapes blooming in impressionistic colors. Carmen still remembers how her mother used to take the van out to the mountains to paint in solitude, much like Van Gogh did. Betsy would paint the yellow flowers and the poppies that ran through the countryside. It was a joy for her to simply be alone with her art and let her creativity flow. 

She continued to paint until the age of 90 when osteoporosis affected her handling of the brush. | Carla Aguirre de Cárcer Bria

In more recent years, Betsy’s artistic gaze drifted upward. She would climb up on the highest part of their home to gaze at the sky and draw inspiration from the every-changing clouds. She would go to Manila Bay to capture the mesmerizing sunsets. Later called atmosferagrafia or atmospherics, these breathtaking skyscapes would make a permanent addition to Betsy’s oeuvre. 

It was through the same subject that Betsy poured her anguish and grief at the news of her daughter’s passing. From her canvas emerged a dense cloudscape, with a striking use of deep reds and orange. Aptly called Passages, the painting depicts a hollow that burrows through the clouds–an ethereal passage that leads to a realm beyond the living. 

After the age of 90, she painted using her hands and fingers. | Carla Aguirre de Cárcer Brias

The painting now hangs at Instituto Cervantes as a donation of very special significance to the artist. When asked if Betsy was often attached to her paintings, Carmen states that her mother was always willing to sell them. Painting was a way for Betsy to support her family, as both their pillar and light. Carmen thinks it kept her mother going–the sense and purpose coming from the feeling of being needed. 

“She painted until she couldn’t.”

Betsy was content with her life and art until age caught up with her. As she approached her 90s, osteoporosis began to take its toll on her right arm, hindering her ability to paint as fluidly as she once could. It was a gradual decline. She painted less and less, persisting for as long as she eventually said, “I don’t feel like it anymore.”

Ms Westendorp at home in Manila, shortly before flying to Madrid for the last time. Behind her, a fabulous self-portrait of the artist in a garden, which now hangs in the family’s Madrid residence. | Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions
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Betsy, the grandmother

“She would make me eat healthy every morning when I was little,” says Carla. “She would make me drink my orange juice.”

Like her mother, Carla grew up seeing her grandmother paint. She grew up in a household where creativity was a way of life, and Betsy doing her art was simply the norm. Betsy, however, was the doting grandmother who kept firm in her lessons. She taught Carla her manners and how to eat properly. 

“She was very kind. Extremely generous,” Carla continues. “She was my biggest source of inspiration because she was amazing. Not only as an artist. She was very strong, very positive. She will never be sad. She would always keep on. So she was very inspiring. For us. For all of the family.”

While Carmen Brias (right) saw her mother as someone who kept much of her thoughts to herself, Carla (left) observed the opposite, saying that her grandmother shared her feelings most of the time. Both agreed, though, that Betsy Westendorp was a very generous woman. | Carla Aguirre de Cárcer Brias

Betsy’s artistry has run into the family–her artistic passion inevitably playing a huge role in their lives. Isabel was an actress, while Sylvia also did paintings. Sylvia’s daughter Cristina is a multi-disciplinary artist, foraying into painting and art jewelry, photography and sculpture, while Inés was into fashion design. Carmen used to hold painting and sculpture exhibitions before she set her eyes on art restoration. 

Carla is a photographer based in Spain and was just married in 2022. As a thoughtful gesture to commemorate the occasion, Betsy instructed Carla to choose a painting that spoke to her heart and keep it as a wedding present. Carla chose a lush floralscape that overlooks Taal Volcano in the background. 

“I always loved this painting,” Carla remarks. “Everytime I go to my aunt’s house, I remember it.”

The painting used to adorn Isabel’s living room, hanging adjacent to another equally captivating sunset canvas. Carla never got to hang her gift. Her apartment was too small. The painting was rolled and wrapped, secured in a tube, and placed in a safe area in the ancestral home, until it was taken to Manila, unfurled, and reinstalled at Salcedo Auctions’ main gallery. 

Untitled. Betsy Westendorp. | Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

“I don’t think I’ll ever have a wall big enough to hang it,” shares Carla, following her decision to consign the 8 x 4 feet canvas. The painting was extra special to her because Isabel was also her godmother. “I feel sad about letting it go, but I know that my lola is okay with the decision. She is helping me from wherever she is right now.”

The painting is now mounted adjacent to the title panel welcoming visitors to the preview of Salcedo Auctions’ ‘The Well-Appointed Life” auction, which will take place on Saturday, March 18, live and online at 2PM. Betsy’s masterpiece joins the works of other giants of Philippine art, such as National Artists BenCab, Ang Kiukok, Victorio Edades, J. Elizalde Navarro, and HR Ocampo; beloved stalwarts of Philippine art, among them: Lee Aguinaldo, Malang, and Romulo Olazo; and contemporary masters Emmanuel Garibay and Ronald Ventura among the prized pieces carefully selected by the premier auction house’s specialists. Betsy’s masterpiece is now part of a community that contributes to the definition, development and increased appreciation of Philippine art and culture. 

After being with the family for years, art lovers can finally see one of Westendorp’s biggest works at the preview of Salcedo Auctions’ THE WELL-APPOINTED LIFE sale. | Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

Some people find joy in the intangible gifts such as experiences, memories, or heartfelt sentiments that can stay with us for a lifetime. For Carmen and Carla, the greatest gift they received from Betsy was something ineffable. 

For Carmen, it was the way her mother was. The way Betsy approached life with strength and courage. It was having someone in front of her that did what her mother did, showing how to approach things in life with such courage and elegance. 

For Carla, it was being able to have a connection to the Philippines and its rich culture. It gave her a lot of things, and enriched her life. She grew to love Filipino food and learn Filipino words. It was a special bond between her and her grandmother, which also linked her to her Filipino heritage while living in her Spanish homeland. 

“I would never call her abuela,” says Carla, when referring to Betsy. Abuela is the Spanish word for ‘grandmother.’ “Never. It was always Lola.”

To participate in The Well-Appointed Life auction, visit Salcedo Auctions at  To view the catalogue, click on this link.