On Dec. 8, 1886, Juan Luna married Paz Pardo de Tavera. Soon after, they spent part of their honeymoon in Venice, a city Luna had painted before with his good friend Mariano Benlliure during his time studying in Rome in 1882. It was during this honeymoon that he painted “Sorprendidos” by the Rio del Paradiso facing the back of the Palazzo Ruzzini, known today as the Ruzzini Palace Hotel.
“Sorprendidos” depicts an illicit love affair. It is not our place to judge the lovers, as we have no context for their actions. But there must be a problematic aspect to their relationship, given the reaction of the Goya-esque figure crying scandal as she flings her hands in the air with her fingers outstretched.
One obvious interpretation of the painting is that the boatman here is none other than a conscious or subconscious representation of Juan Luna himself asking for the hand of Paz Pardo de Tavera. The older woman would be Paz’s mother, Dona Juliaña, who at first had forbidden the two to marry. However, there is another way to look at this painting: a foretelling of a secret story that was going to change Juan Luna’s life forever.
On Aug. 8, 1892, Juan Luna wrote to his wife Paz:
“My Chiching, to your Lulu you are always the most beautiful of them all, and I ardently long for your return so I can paint your portrait as I would like to, while the weather remains warm. And do you know how I would like to paint your portrait? Answer me on this subject, so I may know if you have guessed correctly. Now that your body is beautiful, let us take advantage of our time, because after, we will become old, and goodbye to beauty!”
The summer heat was working on both Luna’s artistic desires and his libido, as he was alone in Paris. He was missing Paz, who had been advised by her doctor to seek treatment at the thermal springs of Mont-Dore for her asthma. She was accompanied by their son, Andres, who was almost five years old, and their English nanny, Miss Basley. Luna, however, had to stay in Paris to finish his monumental painting “People and Kings.” The couple’s relationship was in shambles after the loss of their two-year-old daughter, Bibi, in March. Luna’s father had also passed away at about the same time. This trip would be a balm not only for Paz’s physical health, but also for her emotional well-being.
When Paz came back on Aug. 12, the first thing she told Luna was that she would need to take daily walks every afternoon. Doctor’s orders. Luna wondered why she wasn’t taking Andres with her like before, why she wasn’t wearing her mourning clothes anymore—and also, who was this Monsieur Dussaq she had written about who had brought her to the casino in Mont-Dore? As a matter of fact, how could she even go to the casino while in mourning? Paz answered that she went to the casino only to listen to Spanish singers because she was missing home. The sound of Spanish comforted her.
Chevalier Christophe Maurice Dussaq, recently knighted because of the success of his businesses in Cuba where he was president of the French chamber of commerce, spoke Spanish perfectly. He was an elegant man, 44 years old, from a wealthy merchant family in Bordeaux, and when he made a surprise visit to the Lunas on Sept. 4, 1892, he offered to knight the Filipino painter as a chevalier de légion d’honneur. According to Regidor Jurado, the Pardo de Tavera family lawyer, he also presented Luna with the first bicycle with an inflatable tire. Luna’s jealousy alarms were going off:
“M. Dussaq’s familiarity with my son shocked me, and when he spoke of my talent and the possibility of having me knighted, my eyes opened wide. I questioned my wife, but she answered that she only had a social relationship with M. Dussaq, as is the case in casinos. I told her that one had to be careful with these kinds of relations.”
Madame Charlot was the Concierge at 25 rue du Mont Thabor. On Sept. 7, 1892, a black and gold lacquered carriage from the Grand Magasins du Louvre parked in front of her building and delivered a package for M. Dussaq. A gift, she thought, for one of the new ladies. M. Dussaq would rent the apartment on the ground floor from a certain Mme. Sailly. This apartment—or garçonnière, as it is called—was just across from her lodge. It was here that he would meet his women. Occasionally, he would also lend the space to his friends. Madame Charlot was paid 30 francs a month to clean up after each rendez-vous galant.
On that day, she was told to leave the door of the garçonnière open. “Stop it!” said her husband as she repeatedly looked through the peephole. “But I want to see who is coming!” she answered. At around 3:30 in the afternoon, a tall lady in black made her way in. The lady in black stayed for two hours and then asked Madame Charlot to get her a victoria. She overheard the lady asking the coachman to bring her to the Gare du Nord train station. That night, she was excited to tell Mme. Sailly what had happened, and Mme. Sailly precipitately entered the garçonnière, tailed by Madame Charlot and probably her husband as well.
At the trial of Juan Luna, Mme. Charlot paused here as she recounted this story to an intrigued M. Pillet-Desjardin, the president of the Cours d’Assises de la Seine, the criminal tribunal of Paris. “Should I?” she asked, coyly.
“Go on, go on,” urged the president. Mme. Charlot did not spare any detail. A journalist for the XIXème Siècle, covering the trial writes: “With less embarrassment than one would imagine, she revealed the sordid details of the mutually adulterous love affair of M. Dussaq and Mme. Luna. It was a love affair in which it seemed like anything could happen next.” Another journalist from Gil Blas mentions the “undone bed, the bidet, dirty waters in basins, towels on the floor…”
“I did not tell the entire truth to the magistrate (juge d’instruction),” revealed Mme. Charlot, “because the woman who rented the furnished apartment told me that if I had told the truth, there would be two dishonored women instead of just one.”
Mme. Charlot is another version of this woman who flings her arms up in the air upon discovering the scandalous affair of Paz Pardo de Tavera and M. Dussaq, gleefully gossiping to the avid and surprised ears of the audience at Luna’s trial. “With Mme. Charlot,” says Marcel l’Heureux, “we witness the comical part of the tragedy.” It is a tragedy indeed, and the story of this tragedy begins with the one who will be the most “sorprendido” of them all.
On Sept. 10, 1892, Luna decided to accompany Paz during one of her daily excursions. They walked to the Bois de Boulogne, where Paz suddenly remembered that she had an appointment with her seamstress. They parted ways, but a few seconds later, Luna decided to trail her: an easy task because of her short-sightedness. After a short detour to the post office, Paz got on the omnibus à l’Impériale (a double-decker horse-drawn bus) at Avenue de la Grande Armée, and so did Luna; Paz was on the lower level, and Luna watched her from the top. They passed the Arc de Triomphe and took the Champs Elysées down to the Place de la Concorde.
Paz finally got off at the rue de Rivoli, unaware that her husband was a few steps away. Luna followed her to rue Cambon and then rue du Mont Thabor. She stopped in front of number 25, pulled out her lorgnette to verify the number, and entered.
Luna stood across the street, just a few meters away. He gathered his courage and decided to follow her inside. The door slammed behind him. She was nowhere to be found. Mme. Charlot peeked her head out from her lodge and asked Luna what he was doing there.
“I’m looking for a lady in black,” he said, frantically.
“There is no lady in black here, answered Mme. Charlot. “Leave immediately or I’ll call the police!”
Luna ignored her and ran up the stairs, stopping at every floor to try the doors. Mme. Charlot chased him, but he wouldn’t listen to her. So she went to Dussaq’s garçonnière to warn Paz. “Madame, Madame,” she said, “there is a little black man in the building who is looking for you.”
“My God!” said Mme. Luna. “It’s my husband!”
“Look out the window,” urged Mme. Charlot.
“It’s him indeed,” she said, trembling.
Luna stood in the middle of the hallway, panting. Suddenly, the entrance door slammed again. Luna turned around, and in the shadows he discerned a man with a haut-de-forme (top hat). After a brief moment of surprise the man extended his hand to him, and Luna instantly recognized M. Dussaq. “What! You, here?” he said. “You live here, then?”
“No,” answered Dussaq. “I live on Avenue Kléber. I came to see a friend.”
The two shook hands awkwardly, but there could be no more doubt in Luna’s mind. His wife was having an affair with M. Dussaq. Luna froze, just like that Goya-esque figure with her arms flung out and her fingers outstretched. It was, indeed, he who was sorprendido. The emotional turmoil from this moment would lead inexorably to events that would change the rest of his life. The following day he would search her cabinet and force a confession of her adulterous affair at gunpoint. He would become more and more violent every day after that, until the fateful morning of Sept. 22, 1892, the day he crossed a line from which he would never come back.
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Martin Arnaldo, filmmaker. © 2021 Martin Arnaldo. All rights reserved.
‘Sorprendidos’ by Juan Luna is a highlight of the forthcoming León Gallery Asian Cultural Council (ACC) Auction on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.