CHATTER FILLED the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila on Feb. 22. A giant diptych of Betsy Westendorp’s signature clouds greeted guests, along with two large tables on which guests skimmed through hardcover books filled with her portraits and landscapes. The artist arrived dressed elegantly in her signature color — white. All the artist heard was the buzzing as the venue was a full house. It was her 90th birthday.
Spanish painter Betsy Westendorp celebrated her birthday with the launch of a two-volume coffee-table book focusing on her art — portraits, landscapes, the Malacañang collection, Taal lake scenery, her flowers and her clouds. A project of the De La Salle University (DLSU) Publishing House, the book was edited by art critic Cid Reyes, designed by Spanish graphic designer Iñigo Cerdan, and includes Spanish text by art critic Elena Flórez.
The production of the book — called simply Betsy Westendorp — was initiated by museum administrator and writer Rita Ledesma who inquired about the possibility of working on it with the publishing house.
“The goal of the publication is to chronicle the life and work of Betsy Westendorp and give this the best package we can come up with, in order to tell the world (so to speak) of the distinct achievement of an artist and, specifically, a Spanish artist who is also a Filipino,” DLSU Publishing House Executive Publisher Dr. David Bayot told BusinessWorld in an e-mail about the book’s content and goal.
At the launch, Mr. Bayot said the works included in the books were carefully chosen by Ms. Westendorp.
“We have been offering complimentary copies to various units (e.g. Metropolitan Museum and libraries) in order to fulfill our goal for this publication — to tell the people about the life and art of Betsy Westendorp,” he told BusinessWorld.
Ms. Westendorp still paints every day and considers it a form of meditation. “If I start painting when I have a problem, after a few hours, I don’t have worries anymore. They disappear,” she told BusinessWorld during the launch.
Ms. Westendorp started her career painting portraits and later explored landscape painting. “I started [with] portraits, I enjoy[ed] it so much. First, I painted my family and then continued until I had commissions. I enjoyed it so much. I loved to do it,” she said.
Her favorite painting is the one she made of her grandson Ian and daughter Isabel (Portrait of Isabel with Ian). “The painting I did out of a photograph of my grandson who died when he was 26 years old — I had a picture taken of him and my daughter by a window in my house in Madrid. They were sitting by the window [and] a glass and then there was a pool outside.” And my grandson, I loved him so much. He was so happy with his mother and enjoying the moment… I painted it. I enjoyed so much painting his face. Remembering how it was and [you know], if you know a person very well, it’s easy to paint,” she said.
“[Painting portraits] is special. A portrait painter is not made, [he/she] is born. There are many people who would like to do portraits, but they can’t get the likeness, so, that means they don’t have it. They can be painters. They can paint anything, but they can’t get the likeness of a person,” she explained, referring to American portrait artist John Singer Sargent’s statement: “A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth.” Ms. Westendorp agreed saying that in portraiture, “the mouth is the most difficult [thing] to paint.”
The artist continued by saying that portrait painters eventually tire from what they do. “But all portrait painters, [there] is a time when we get tired. It happens to all of them… There is no freedom in portraiture. [Because] no matter what, I’m going to paint whatever I like, but you get influenced… There is a time that you really get tired. And there are so many beautiful things in nature, why waste your time? And besides, it is discouraging. People are not attracted to portraits in auctions.
“I will not consider doing anything that I enjoy but painting… I’m so lucky that I have good health although I’m very old. But I don’t want to think about years. As long as I feel like painting, I will do it, and that’s what inspires me,” she said.
Copies of the two-volume book will soon be available for sale at the De La Salle University Publishing House and museums in Metro Manila. The set is priced at P7,500. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman