Behind the Curse of Juan Luna's "Portrait of a Lady"

IMAGE Photograph taken by Tammy David

Rose Alipio doesn’t say much about the painting. In her many years as gallery guide in the National Museum, she’s adhered to her conservative annotation of the artwork when speaking to museum visitors—that it is Juan Luna’s portrait of his wife Paz Pardo de Tavera, adding what might already be rather obvious: that it is a picture of Paz before bedtime, seeing as the woman is in bed, clutching a rosary, and there’s a prayer book and a night stand to her left. “Do you know that Juan Luna killed his wife?” Rose might ask if she is feeling a little generous, or if her audience seems a more involved group and not a bunch of students who want nothing more than to whiz through the tour and get out of the museum halls. Otherwise, Rose seems more than happy to offer only basic information, careful never to venture onto the tricky subject that has haunted the painting for many decades now: the curse it is said to possess.

During opening night at the Met Museum, the spotlight for Portrait of a Lady exploded. All the other lights were fine. 

The painting, an undated work in oil once entitled Paz Pardo de Tavera but which now goes by the ID Portrait of a Lady, is said to carry a powerful spell. Those who have come to own it over the years, it is believed, have met terrible misfortunes, from unexplained sickness to bad business to downright death. “Tsismis says its first owner, Manuel Garcia, was forced to sell it because his business had gone bad,” wrote the historian Ambeth Ocampo in his book Looking Back. “Betty Bantug Benitez bought it and met a tragic road accident in Tagaytay. The portrait then passed through the collection of Tony Nazareno, who also suffered bad luck and sudden illness, so he sold it to Imee Marcos Manotoc, who suffered a miscarriage. In the Luna-Hidalgo exhibition catalogue published by the Metropolitan Museum, the provenance given is not Imee Marcos, but Imelda Marcos, whose fate in 1986 we are all familiar with. She donated the painting to the National Museum.”

“We’d rather not say anything negative about the artwork,” Rose tells me in Filipino, the day we visit the painting at the museum. “We just want the visitor to appreciate it.”

Which is not entirely difficult. Inherently a beauty, a standout among its two immediate neighbors—beside it hang a couple of rather dreary portraits of Parisian ladies of the night—it's a vessel of brightness that draws the eyes in, in the all-green Luna and Hidalgo room at the museum’s first floor. Portrait of a Lady is a dreamy, Impressionist rendering of a woman lounging in bed, surrounded by the softest white sheets and awash in a kind of beatific light. The brushstrokes are tender, almost delicate, enhancing the innocence in her expression.

But when you look closer, she seems to be posing after a sexual interlude, her skin flush pink, her frothy night dress appearing to have slipped off a little, revealing her supple right breast. “It’s a very Victorian concept,” says the art historian Ramon Villegas of the work which is said to have been completed in Paris in 1890, “that contrast of seductiveness and the symbol of devotion (rosary), a secret life with public piety.”

The curious thing, however, is that the lady in the portrait doesn’t look at all like Luna’s wife who in photographs appears to have a skin color closer to brown than pearly white, with a countenance one is tempted to call almost masculine. While some say the lady is Luna’s favourite model, a Caucasian named Angela Duche, some art historians propose that the woman in the painting is Luna’s idealized vision of his Spanish-Filipino mestiza wife, and the portrait itself is a loving depiction of their sexual, if not marital, bliss.

So how can one painting that embodied a husband’s reverence and love for his wife end up being only a bearer of gloom and doom? And how did it happen that the love and bliss in the marriage bed quickly turned into jealousy and hate, consequently ending in tragedy, with the painter Juan Luna shooting his wife Paz in their home in September 23, 1892, some two years after the painting was made?

* * *

Juan Luna was an ambitious artist with a great talent to back up his ambition. He was also very termperamental and could get quite violent. When he was drawn to Paris after Madrid, it was there that he met his wife Paz who he would marry in 1886, and kill in 1892.

In Paris during the belle époque years, they were the picture of an It Couple, Juan and Paz. She was the prized daughter of a very tight-knit, very wealthy political family in self-exile from the Philippines; the Pardo de Taveras, Filipinos of Spanish nobility, fled to Europe to escape—according to Raquel Reyes’s book Love, Passion and Patriotism—the possibility of persecution from the anti-reform Spaniards.

“Paz had grown up in Paris, she was not the typical Maria Clara. In Paris, you’re not going to look like you came straight out of a convent,” says Mara Pardo de Tavera, daughter of former social services department secretary Mita Pardo de Tavera who is a granddaughter of Trinidad, the brother of Paz. Owing to having lived abroad, Paz was cosmopolitan, sophisticated, spoke French and English and, as Jose Rizal once observed, was “very amiable, and also very Filipino. She dresses with much elegance…” Juan, for his part, was a terribly ambitious young man, and possessed with a great talent to back his ambition. Before he moved to Paris from Madrid where he continued his art studies, he had already won great recognition from the Exposicion Nacional de Belles Artes, a gold medal for a mammoth work entitled Spoliarium, for which he would also win a prize in France—another gold, this time from the Societe des Artistes Francais. He was a promising young painter who moved with the cool crowd of Filipino artists and intellectuals, among them Rizal, and Paz’s two brothers, Trinidad and Felix, through whom Paz and Juan would meet.

While Paz’s mother, Doña Juliana Gorricho, thought Juan and her daughter a bad match, she would be convinced by her son Trinidad that his friend was “not a vulgar native” and with his great talent and education would make a fine husband for Paz. The 29-year old Juan would marry the 21-year old Paz in September of 1886, and the two would honeymoon in Venice and Rome. In September of the following year, Paz would give birth to their first child Andres, lovingly nicknamed Luling, who his father doted on and made the subject of many portraits. After Paz suffered a miscarriage, and having realized the difficulty of financially supporting a family with the erratic earnings of an artist, Luna was forced to move with his new family to a new address, the 26 Villa Dupont, 48 Rue Pergolese in Paris. There, Paz’s protective mother Juliana would live with the couple, not only to watch over her daughter and grandson, but also to practically finance the entire household, including the studies of Antonio, Juan’s brother, who for a time was a house guest.

The famous Los Indios Bravos photograph of Luna, Jose Rizal and Valentin Ventura in Paris. The lady in the background, sitting by the steps, holding a child, is Paz. Some historians say the woman’s place in this photo reflects her place in the marriage. The photo would usually come out in publications with Paz cropped out.

It was this living situation that would perhaps give birth to a household fraught with tension. Being reminded constantly of his incapacity to play the role of the family man would prove a great burden for the naturally egotistic Juan. Things would take a turn for the worse after the death of their second child, Bibi. The loss proved a terrible blow to the artist, and would so greatly affect Paz’s health that she would be advised by the family doctor to take a vacation. She would bring Luling with her to Mont Dore, while Juan busied himself with the final touches on another large work, this time entitled Peuple et Rois (People and Kings). On Paz’s return to Paris after her two months’ rest, Juan had already been nursing suspicions that his wife had carried on an affair with a friend she met on her holiday. He tried to force her to admit to being an adulteress as he held a gun pointed towards her, but Paz would not confess to any kind of infidelity—only that she had stopped loving him. Luna’s violence towards his wife would intensify in the days that followed. He would be convinced that the best solution was for Paz and Luling to move with him to Spain and start life anew, but the wife, terrified now of her husband’s rage, expressed that she wanted a divorce.

After being convinced that the Pardo de Taveras were conspiring to eventually take his wife and son away from him, Luna became suspicious and paranoid of everything around him. On September 23, 1892, when Paz refused to open the door of the second floor bedroom where she was with her son and her mother Juliana, Juan got his gun, and after pounding on the door incessantly and seeing Paz’s brothers coming to her rescue from across the street, shot at the heads of Doña Juliana and Paz. The former died immediately, in the presence of the child Luling, and Paz would die a few days after.

A group photo in Paris, with Paz standing second from right.

Luna would be arraigned in a Paris court a few months later, and would be absolved of criminal and civil charges. The tragedy was enough to convince the artist to leave Paris, and with his son move back to Madrid where he would tell his friends that he had lost all inspiration to carry on with his art. Meanwhile, Trinidad decided to burn all of the Luna paintings in his possession, and for years there was to be no Luna painting in any Pardo de Tavera household.

* * *

“Inquiring into the provenance of this painting, I could not understand why it has survived to the present,” wrote Ambeth Ocampo in Looking Back, “when the Pardo de Taveras are said to have burned all their Lunas...” Indeed, there is no known record of how the portrait found its way to Manila and the homes of Manila collectors. As to where the supposed curse of Portrait of a Lady came from, that remains a mystery, too. Did Luna, in his desperation, curse the painting? Was the portrait present at Villa Dupont during the murder, and by some black magic imbued with the tragedy, which it passed on to every home it found itself in? I could go on with the questions, but I’m starting to sound ridiculous even to myself.

Close to three decades after it made its way to the National Museum, the rumor of the curse persists, as most rumors do. A source close to Vicky and the late Tony Nazareno, the couple who once owned Portrait of a Lady, says there might be no record of the curse’s origins but there might be basis to believe it.

“We never heard about the supposed curse of the painting,” our source says. “We never knew! [Vicky] especially is very superstitious, so if she had known she wouldn’t have acceded to her husband’s prodding to purchase the painting. At any rate, I do remember that it was purchased in 1981, the beginning of ‘81, and for some reason, the family closed one of its biggest stores. They had a handicraft store and the biggest was in Roxas Boulevard and that was closed… And Tony got sick inexplicably. I remember his carotid artery got swollen. It was really swollen. He was in Makati Med in and out, for months, and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the carotid artery. And it was also the start of him having hypertension problems.”

According to the same source, the broker of the painting was Fe de Pio, wife of the famous portraitist Gig and mother of up-and-coming artist Vince, who was at the time selling two Luna paintings to the Nazarenos, the other one entitled La Bete Humaine, or The Human Beast, which was eventually purchased by the famous collector Teyet Pascual. “Tony and Vicky had already hung that in the house, but then Vicky had this eerie feeling about the painting. It’s a very dreary painting, very beautiful lady in black holding a book called La Bete Humaine. [But] they really liked [the other] painting, the woman with the exposed breast and rosary. It was beautiful.” (I spoke to Fe de Pio and she only remembers selling the La Bete Humaine to the Nazarenos, not the supposed portrait of Paz).

It was around P2 million when the Nazarenos bought it in the ‘80s; now it can easily be in the P50 million range. 

The portrait graced the Nazarenos’ living room in Forbes Park for more or less a year, in the company of artworks by other Filipino masters, a portrait of Fernanda de Jesus by Fernando Amorsolo, and Simon Flores’s 12-foot La Asuncion among them. Being dealers and collectors themselves, the elder Nazarenos exhibited the painting in one of the big art shows held in a hotel in the 1980s. “I think that was the place where Mrs. Marcos saw it, if I’m not mistaken,” says our source. “She saw it and I think she expressed her intention to purchase it. I don’t know if it was a personal sale or a sale thru the hotel. At any rate, she purchased it.” It was seen hanging at the president’s office at Malacañang in 1983, the year Ninoy Aquino was murdered at the Manila International Airport, a moment many consider the beginning of the Marcoses’ descent from power. It is said that for a time it was in the home of Imee Marcos and it was during this period where she was supposed to have suffered a miscarriage. (Imee, now Ilocos Norte Governor, declined our request for an interview.)

“In some degree I am [superstitious],” says our source, a lawyer, when I asked if he too believes the painting has a curse. “How do you explain the mystery behind the Hope Diamond? I don’t know.”

What he knows is that in 1987, during the opening night of a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum featuring the paintings by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo—for which the Nazarenos lent two of their own Lunas—the spotlight for the Portrait of a Lady exploded. All the other lights were fine, except the one for that particular painting. “And then throughout the run of the exhibit,” adds our source, “nag-burst yung pipe nung museum and yung drip was right in front of the painting!”

It was only in 1985 that the Nazarenos learned about the supposed curse attached to Portrait. “The art world before, you really didn’t know the provenance [of the artworks], especially if it came from a broker, so we really could not trace the history of the people who owned it. We just found out there was a series of reversals of fortune among the previous owners,” our source says. (A comment thread on the blog Remembrance of Things Awry mentions another couple who used to own the painting, whose house in Forbes Park burned down in 1980. “However, the painting was unscathed.”)

“I think the Nazarenos were among the lucky ones. There was no death in the family that occurred during that time, although eventually their marriage disintegrated—but it was years after that pa naman. But the illness factor was there... [Tony’s condition] progressed to hypertension and it got compounded, he eventually passed away in 2005. It started there. If I could pinpoint a year when he started getting sick, it was that year [they acquired the painting].”

And then, of course, there’s the famous art restoration expert Susano “Jun” Gonzales, formerly the go-to guy for museums and collectors. He was said to have done some work on the Luna portrait. He eventually died in a gruesome murder.

* * *

The Crystal Arcade, designed by Luna’s son Andres, a top architect in Manila during his time. The structure burned down, and there are people who say it was because Luling kept the urn of his father’s ashes there.

Yung mga sinasabing malas, I don’t believe in malas objects,” Ramon Villegas tells me. “Yung case ni Jun Gonzales, it was [because of ] a land deal gone wrong.” According to Villegas, Gonzales was killed some 12 years after performing the restorative work on Portrait and the way he died had nothing to do with art at all. Apart from being an art historian and a culture writer, Villegas owns the famous antique store, Katutubo, at the La’O Center in Makati. I ask him about the value of the Portrait in pesos, and says that it might have fetched around P2 million when the Nazarenos bought it in the ‘80s, but now he thinks it can easily be at least in the P50 million range. It is said that legends and spells and curses are sometimes woven into the fabric of art and other such treasures to add to them a layer of history and importance, consequently upping their value in the world market.

Indeed, like in the many mishaps the legendary Hope Diamond is said to have wrought, none of the misfortunes illustrated above may actually be caused by having the portrait in one’s care. The National Museum, its home since 1986, seems in good shape—at least by Philippine government office standards—the renovations that began in 2011 are now in their final stages. But what of the Philippine government, the painting’s rightful owner since the 1986 EDSA revolt kicked out its most recent owners from power?

“If one believed in the curse, then one would believe that every item from that house during that murder is cursed,” Mara Pardo de Tavera tells me in her home filled with artworks and antiques. “Me, when I get Luna paintings, or I borrow them, or people ask me to check if it’s good (read: authentic), I tell them I have to keep it for a while because I need to dwell on it.” She shows me a photograph of a painting of the Luna home’s fireplace in Paris. “I was dwelling on this because I thought something about this felt so familiar. And one day I see my jar and I remember that picture.” It turns out the pair of jars that has been with her family for a long time, and are now towering on Mara’s living room coffee table, are the same jars that sat on top of the fireplace at 26 Villa Dupont, the Luna residence in Paris. Are they, these beauties made of a sort of deep green stone, like the painting, cursed, too?

“I believe there’s energy in everything that you own. The energy of what happened in that house, and in that jar, I don’t believe that energy can harm or do good. It all depends on the beholder, what they want it to do for them,” Mara tells me in her rented home in a well-appointed Makati village. “And for me I’ve been creative with that, and it’s been useful for me in connecting to pieces or to the paintings. I feel some kind of vibration from them that connects me to the history of that time. So yes there is that story of that painting that belonged to Imelda daw and then namalas si Imelda. I just have to say people create their paths in life, and if they don’t do good to many people, don’t expect good to come back to them. So that I think is a curse that one makes for oneself, depending on their behavior and how they act. So it’s unfair to blame [what happens to you] on anyone’s paintings. But it’s convenient to do so.”

This article was originally published in our February 2015 issue. The following corrections are made online: Luna's favored model is Angela Duche not Angela Douche. Luna married Paz Pardo de Tavera in September 1886 not December. According to historian Ambeth Ocampo, Luna did not fire through a keyhole, but rather at the heads of his wife and mother-in-law.

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Jerome Gomez
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