Style Living Self Geeky News and Views
In the Paper Hello! Create with us

Betsy Westendorp: The passages of her life and art

By MANNY MIÑANA, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 24, 2021 4:00 pm

The acclaimed artist Betsy Westendorp just turned 93 and her passion and fire for her art continue to gather momentum.

This Jan. 29, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, in partnership with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, De La Salle University Publishing House, and Pioneer Insurance, is honoring her with the opening of the artist’s major retrospective entitled, “Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp.”

Over 100 paintings will be on exhibition at the ground floor galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila until March 15, 2021. 

Throughout the vicissitudes of her life and her artistic evolution as an artist spanning over six decades, she has found strength, refuge, and inspiration in her art. Along with the wide support and affection she has garnered from her many collectors and admirers, Westendorp has earned her voluble, distinguished reputation as an artist.

Born in Spain in 1927, the young Betsy would sketch anything that caught her attention. She later discovered a facility for drawing people, using her family as subjects of her creative disposition.

 A self-portrait of Betsy Westendorp painting in her garden in Aravaca

Her father, Carlos Westendorp, a military man who later rose to become a general in the Spanish Air Force, was a gentle and encouraging force even in her youth. Her mother, Isabel, was a housewife who raised three children: Maribel, Carlos Jr., and Betsy. Betsy’s older brother later grew up to be a distinguished diplomat in the Spanish and EU governments.

It is apparent that art and diplomacy ran in the family. Her father’s sister-in-law was the famous Dutch painter Betsy Westendorp Osieck (1880-1968), an eminent floral and landscape artist whom Betsy was named after, and Betsy’s baptismal godmother.

During the Spanish Civil War, Betsy’s father was jailed for three years, from 1936 to 1939, as a member of the Nacionalists or right wing. The Republicans or communists seized several areas including Aravaca, where the Westendorp family home was located.

Upon reflecting, Betsy shared, “It was a sad time for me and my family, not knowing the fate of our father. After the war, my dear father was reunited with us.” Despite this tense time, she intuitively recognized that she wanted to be an artist. Later into her teens, she took up private lessons from a well-regarded portrait painter, her fresh passage into the artistic life.

Throughout the vicissitudes of her life and her artistic evolution as artist spanning over six decades, she has found strength, refuge and inspiration in her art.

Refined, lithe, and beautiful, Betsy was in a café with a male friend who casually introduced her to a visiting gent from the Philippines, the handsome, swarthy Antonio Brias. It was love at first sight. That was in 1950; and in 1951, they were married. She was 22.

Soon after, Brias, then a San Miguel Corporation high executive, returned to Manila with his new bride. Their sheltered domestic life bore three children: Isabel, Sylvia, and Carmen, who were later introduced to Manila society.

But the artist, completely in love and besotted with her beloved Tony, had to navigate through another passage in her now-married life: her husband had bouts with depression. That notwithstanding, their love and faithfulness towards one another endured, highlighted by many enjoyable visits to the local cinemas and in the bosom of new friendships formed from Manila’s affluent milieu.

Fourteen years after, in 1965, the family returned to live in Madrid.

Westendorp shared, “My husband Tony was studying in Switzerland when he was only 18, whereupon he caught a degenerative virus which affected his cerebellum. Unbeknownst to me, this degenerative disease slowly affected the motor skills of his body. He could hardly move his legs, arms, and limbs.”

  Painting of the Taal volcano

Westendorp’s daughter, Carmen, continued: “We were all very affected by his condition and that’s when Betsy really started painting, not only to provide for us, her family, but to forget for a while what was happening to my father, Tony.”

Six years into this debilitating physical condition, Betsy’s beloved husband Tony died, in 1976. His autopsy revealed he had an unknown virus in the cerebellum.

A flashback to Tony and Betsy’s family return to Spain in 1965, as if on cue with destiny, Westendorp’s next passage then revealed itself: she met then Philippine Ambassador to Spain, Luis “Chito” Gonzalez, and his wife, Vicky Quirino Gonzalez, daughter of President Elpidio Quirino.  Betsy had known them for many years while in Manila.

It was through their friendship that Betsy was introduced to several members of Spanish nobility in Madrid. In 1970, her rarefied world emerged, and Betsy was beside herself when she was asked to call on the Zarzuela Palace to paint the portraits of her most distinguished subjects thus far: the three royal children of His Royal Highness Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon and his wife, Princess Sofia: Infante Doña Elena, Infante Doña Cristina, and Infante Don Felipe.

The royal portrait session was a huge success that delighted the royal court of Spain. Then a young prince, Don Felipe is now the reigning King Felipe VI of Spain, and his portrait still hangs in the art collection of the royal household.

A painting from the Westerndrop "Sunset" series

And just like that, Westendorp was thrust into the limelight, invited to do several commissioned portraits of members of Spain’s elite, among them, Doña Carmen Polo de Franco, wife of Generalissimo Franco.

Her society portraits were much sought after; and one Filipino, Philippine Airlines president Benigno “Benny” Toda Jr., had a striking idea: to commission Betsy Westendorp to do the portrait of Imee R. Marcos, eldest daughter of then-President and Mrs. Ferdinand E. Marcos.

So, in 1973, while Imee was in Madrid, Westendorp painted her. Benny and Rose Marie Toda soon after presented the framed portrait to then First Lady Imelda Marcos, marking the beginning of Westendorp’s next passage in her artistic journey: painting the political and social elite of the Philippines.

Betsy’s husband was apprehensive about this new trajectory in his wife’s creative life, but destiny’s door was, once again, opening. In 1974, Westendorp’s portraits were a cause célèbre in a solo exhibition held in New York City, attended by Jaqueline Kennedy, her husband Aristotle Onassis, and America’s rarefied social set.

And then, in 1974, a new passage in the artist’s life and career presented itself: the artist was called upon to Malacañang Palace to do the portraits of President Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos. These commissions were the beginning of steady patronage extended to Westendorp from the couple and their political and social cohorts. 

The eminent art historian Cesar “Cid” Reyes, editor and essayist of the Met’s Betsy Westendorp Retrospective catalogue and erstwhile writer of the artist’s definitive two-volume book published in 2017, wrote, “During the historic People Power Revolution in 1986, these portraits were captured on television as they were hurled out the Palace balcony and ravaged by fire.”

 The artist's studio in Aracava, Madrid

In the vortex of a maelstrom, Westendorp continued on steadily as she is wont to do: finding comfort, strength, inspiration and purpose in her art.

Reyes adds, “Betsy is defined by her commitment to her art. She has remained faithful to her life and duty as artist.” She has certainly lived her life through her art, and has lived her art throughout the many passages of her life.”

Having relocated full-time to Manila in the late ’70s upon the death of her husband, Betsy continued to expand her oeuvre while falling in love with her husband’s country, now her adopted country.

Westendorp once shared with this writer back in 1985, while on a visit to her studio and home in Aravaca, Madrid: “My portraits have become softer since my husband Tony’s passing a decade ago. Furrows, laugh lines and a suppleness characterize my subjects’ faces.  There is calm and respite.”

With recharged inspiration, she would travel to her home in Madrid to check on her family while maintaining a second home, first in Makati, and, eventually, in her Roxas Boulevard penthouse apartment at the Excelsior. While here, Betsy rediscovered the rapture of the sunsets of Manila Bay; fishermen’s homes on stilts and the neighboring barung-barongs along the boulevard. She and her visiting daughters would go close to the bay waters and paint there.

From this, she later became more ephemeral, more fluid in her style, taking to atmospheric skies, calling her canvases “atmosferografias” (atmospherics). She was clearly falling in love with her husband’s country; and since the 1990s until today, has embraced the Philippines as her very own.

Not spared the pain that only helps in the evolution of our own consciousness and humanity, Betsy lost her only grandson, Ian, to sepsis in 1987. In 2016, her eldest daughter, Isabel, mother of Ian, passed away of heart failure. For refuge and strength, she again turned to her faithful canvas and paintbrushes, and sublimated her pain to create the dramatic painting, “Passage.” This stunning masterpiece was donated to the Instituto Cervantes and forms part of the retrospective’s collection. 

Reyes shares, “It is true that often it takes the fresh perspectives of a foreign pair of eyes to show the Filipinos the visual treasures of nature that we all easily take for granted.”

Betsy Westendorp’s true legacy to Philippine art is her undeniable commitment to the beauty of her adoptive home, elevating the Philippine orchid, the Manila sunset, the barung-barong, houses on stilts, the glorious atmospheric abstractionism of our skies, to magnificent, soulful protagonists of her larger-than-life canvases.

Betsy Westendorp’s true legacy to Philippine art is her undeniable commitment to the beauty of her adoptive home, elevating the Philippine orchid, the Manila sunset, the barung-barong, houses on stilts, the glorious atmospheric abstractionism of our skies, to magnificent, soulful protagonists of her larger-than-life canvases.

These elegant depictions have been displayed in Malacañang through several sitting presidents — from Marcos, Aquino, Ramos and Estrada to the Arroyo, Aquino and Duterte administrations.

They are a testimony that there is no divisiveness, no politics in the earnest, soulful pursuit of beauty in art. Her paintings have hung in several Philippine ambassadors’ homes during their tours of duty, showcasing the grandeur of our beloved country.

She has awakened the Filipinos’ eyes to the magnificence of their very own, making the commonplace sublime.

In 1976, His Majesty Juan Carlos I of Spain bestowed on Betsy Westendorp the distinguished Lazo de Dama de la Orden de Isabela Catolica, the equivalent of knighthood, created in 1815 by His Majesty King Ferdinand VII of Spain.

In 2008, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit for Art and Culture presented to her in the Philippine Embassy in Madrid by Ambassador Joseph D. Bernardo and Ambeth Ocampo, then chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

Such is the extraordinary life and artistic career of Betsy Westendorp, celebrated through the Metropolitan Museum of Manila’s homage to her lifework, “Passages.”

Curated by Dannie Alvarez, with the retrospective monograph written by Cid Reyes, this major exhibition has been organized by the Metropolitan Museum of the Philippines together with the retrospective’s executive committee headed by Emmanuel A. Miñana and its members Silvana Diaz, Cid Reyes and Denise Weldon-Miñana.

 The Betsy Westendorp Retrospective Committee members at the Met Museum: Manny and Denise Weldon-Miñana; Cid Reyes, Retrospective catalog writer/editor; Tina Colayco, Met president; member Silvana Diaz; Dannie Alvarez, Retrospective curator; Dan Devela of the Met Museum

The Betsy Westendorp Retrospective has been made possible with the generous support of the following sponsors: Alay ng Inang Maria Foundation, Ramon Antonio, Antonio and Maricris Brias, Rosemarie T. Delgado, Jay and Ana De Ocampo/Wildflour, Raul and Joanna Francisco, Randy and Irene Francisco Antonio and Linda Lagdameo, Jaime Ponce de Leon, Alfonso and Yolanda Reyno, Beatrice Roxas, Carlos and Isabelita Salinas, Rick and Bonnie Santos/Santos Knight Frank, Teresita Sy-Coson, Steve and Loli Sy/Focus Global Inc., Bienvenido Tantoco Sr./SSI Group Inc., Rico and Nena Tantoco/Sta. Elena Golf & Country Estate, Wilfred and Kerri Uytengsu, Randy and Pia Young, and Jaime and Bea Zobel de Ayala.

In keeping with current Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases guidelines, the retrospective will be presented in both real and virtual space starting Jan. 29 until March 15.

In addition, the museum will also present a 3D virtual tour, a biographical film documentary, and interviews and tributes. A printed retrospective monograph with text by Cid Reyes will be produced in partnership with De La Salle University Publishing House. There will also be continuous education and public programs throughout the retrospective, including a fireside chat with the artist. For more information on the retrospective, please contact the Metropolitan Museum of Manila at (02) 8708-7828 and (02) 8708-7829.