Where Art Thou: Filipinos in the Gilded Age

Crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets, damask wallpapers, heavily draped doors — it felt like a time warp as I opened the doors of Leon Gallery to visit a once in a blue moon exhibit.

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Collected by gallery owner Jaime Ponce de Leon and curated by Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, Ramon Villegas, and Liliane Manahan, the Filipinos in a Gilded Age is a collection of works that showcase the highest orders of art, politics, history, culture, and society in the 19th century.

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The Gilded Age refers to the period of great wealth and rapid economic growth in the late 19th century, around 1870’s to the 1900’s. It was derived  from Mark Twain’s 1873 The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today which portrayed an era of serious social problems including cultural, political, and economic issues. The dictionary defines gilded as wealthy and privileged, or covered thinly with gold. However, the gilded age was a derogatory term used to describe a time of both materialistic excesses and extreme poverty.

The exhibit opens us to one of the most important periods in Philippine history: the late 19th century. As a colony of Spain, the Philippines also became a part of the prominent political and economic changes happening in Europe. Manila became open to foreign merchants, where growth in the agricultural industry flourished and export trades fueled the existence of the hacienderos. These in turn funded the education of who we now know as the ilustrados, the Filipino educated class: the enlightened ones,  one of the few people who were exposed and influenced through their travels for the purpose of education.

The journey of the Filipino took a route that brought us from our humid jungles, to temples and abodes, to the open seas and great continents of the world. (Filipinos in the Gilded Age, Leon Gallery)

The space is made up of three dominant colors: green, yellow, and red. Separated by a fake chair railing made of wood and painted to look like marble, two thirds of the upper part of the wall is painted with an olive green shade while the remaining bottom part is a shade of yellow (almost greeny-yellow to yellow ochre) popular in the 19th century. The room that houses the ivory pieces and antique furnitures is painted with red, giving it a warm look familiar to most of the houses of the wealthy class during the period.

It’s hard to describe each painting one by one but as you walk from the entrance a common theme involving the Spanish colonization in the Philippines can be observed. The oil painting from an unknown artist below shows one of the most fascinating and controversial (now, this is another story!) frames in the exhibit: the indigenous inhabitants being presented before the Queen Regent of Spain at the General Exposition of the Philippines.

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Habitantes Indigenos ante de la Reina Regente en la Exposicion General de las Yslas Filipinas de Madrid, 1887 (oil on canvas, Unknown Artist)

On another side of the wall are mixed media and oil paintings that show how our ilustrados were well-traveled and exposed to different cultures. Below are portraits and simple landscapes drawn using watercolor on mother of pearl.

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The scene below is a beach in France created using oil paint and framed in an intricately carved antique wood frame.

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Meanwhile, a side of the wall covered in yellow damask wallpaper features portraits adorned with shiny and detailed gold frames of aristocrats, officials, and prominent individuals painted by Fabian de la Rosa, Felix Martinez, Rafael Enriquez, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, and Juan Luna.

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Look at the details!

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At this point, I haven’t been to the entire space and it’s already an extreme blast from the past. The curator said it was made to evoke a replica of Juan Luna’s studio in Paris. The goal was to immerse exhibit-goers to the late 19th century ideologies, as if seeing through a part of the minds of our great ilustrados.

As you go through the art space, a heavily draped doorway leads to a room painted in persimmon red. During this period, it was said that red is the most common color used to paint most mansions as it exudes a very warm and sheltered atmosphere.

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The Church was the center of the Spanish colonization era and there is no doubt that most of the ivory statues and framed paintings in view are religious.

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Other key pieces in the exhibit included the Manila kamagong cabinet and Batangas altars. I have never seen so much antiquated furnitures in my life until now! When I took a shot of this old altar, this centuries-old wooden furniture created a vibe that gives me serious heavy boots — *goosebumps all over*

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Details, details, details!

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The room also displayed watercolor and gouache paintings by Juan Luna like this one below.

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Oil on canvas by Juan Luna.

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It’s ironic how the 19th century was a tumultuous period of revolution in the Philippines but, at the same time, a golden age. I really hope many were able to witness and immerse into the exhibit even if it ran for only a short period of time. (From February to July!) In a time where information is too overwhelming for us to remember everything, the exhibit is a great reminder of who we are before and how it has shaped who we are today.  If the ilustrados in that era had so much individuality in them, I hope the exhibit ignites the young blood to do the same.


Leon Gallery, owned by Jaime Ponce de Leon, is a leading gallery known for its historically important and museum quality Philippine art. Old Master paintings such as those done by Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, and Fernando Amorsolo lie at the core of Leon Gallery’s collection.  The gallery’s holdings include modernist works of notable artists such as Fernando Zobel, Romeo Tabuena, Diosdado Lorenzo, and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, among others.

Since the pieces of Leon Gallery are steeped in history and tradition hence having impeccable provenance, the gallery persists to have an exemplary level of scholarship, especially in the authentication and documentation of important pieces.  Thus, authenticity for each artwork is guaranteed. Furthermore, Leon Gallery is a purveyor of Philippine antiques, which hark from the pre-Hispanic to the Hispanic era. Antique furniture, ivory, orientalia, pottery, and rugs are included in the gallery’s special heirloom and estate pieces.

The gallery is open from Mondays to Sundays from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM. It is located at G/F, 120, Corinthian Plaza, 121 Paseo de Roxas, Legazpi Village, Makati, Metro Manila. For exhibit schedules and other details, visit their website or check out their Instagram account and Facebook page.

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