Several months back, Betsy Westendorp Brias intimated to me that she hoped to publish a book of her works. It was a wish that came true twice over last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The De La Salle University Publishing House published a two-volume coffee table book featuring her paintings. The compilation spanned a career of almost 50 years.
Portrait of a King
The turnout at the book launch was a strong indication of the ties that the self-taught Spanish painter has with the Philippines. Her marriage to Spanish-Filipino businessman Antonio Brias in 1920 brought her to Manila from Madrid, where they had met. Betsy Westendorp Brias picked up the brush and began to paint floral sprays on canvases that Manila art enthusiasts began to collect. She was also in demand for her portrait paintings and was sought after by high society’s women who sat to have her paint their portraits.
At one time, Betsy Westendorp-Brias had done the portrait of the current Spanish monarch Felipe II. He was still the young Infant Felipe then when she was commissioned by the royal family to do the portraits of the young royals. Her friend Vicky Quirino, wife of the Philippine ambassador to Spain had arranged for her to paint Don Felipe and his sisters Doña Elena and Doña Cristina. Betsy recalls that she made four portraits of the future king of Spain. Many years later, she was told that her portrait of him was his favorite among many that had been made.
Flowers and Clouds
Betsy continued to live in the Philippines even after her husband had passed away. She maintained a transatlantic life, staying some months in Manila and the rest of the year in Madrid, where her daughters had returned and settled down with their families. Her children and grandchildren are also into the arts and creative art related occupations. Betsy maintains a residence in Madrid that Lifestyle Asia featured some years back. The charming brick home set amidst a garden with trees is as much as a lived-in home as her current apartment in Makati. Paint, brushes, painting paraphernalia are part of the setting full of things that hold memories.
Betsy continues to paint despite health challenges. Painting helps to center her through challenges and upheavals. She has weathered through the passing of her husband, a favorite grandson and recently her daughter. Her paintings reflect a beautiful outlook captured in colors and subject matter. Besides the flowers that she is particularly known for, Betsy paints skyscapes of clouds. Even canvasses of clouds convey a breaking through of light. Her sunset paintings are poetry in brushstrokes.
We met a decade ago when she was about to mount an exhibit in Jorge and Stella Araneta’s newly constructed Gateway Mall. The interview happened in her apartment overlooking Roxas Boulevard. While the view outside was the development on reclaimed land, there was a time when she could look out the window and see the water of Manila Bay across the street. It was a memorable place recalling the times when her husband would take her to the walls to watch the sunset over the Manila Bay. She lamented quietly how there was barely a sliver of water visible in the horizon and how pollution had changed the sunsets she used to know. She painted those sky scenes from memory, working directly on the canvas without sketching or preliminary drawings.
She maintained the apartment for several years till friends prevailed on her to transfer to Makati so she would be nearer to places she frequented. Now she lives on another high-rise in the heart of an urban landscape. Artworks fill the walls and room of the residence, some are hers and others are done by her daughter and granddaughter. Her workspace is filled with the familiar paraphernalia of an artist, easel, paints, brushes. Despite her seeming fraility, she still works on large canvases. There are no more views of the Manila Bay and the sunset is obscured by the surrounding tall buildings but Betsy still paints clouds and sunsets and flowers. She is painting from memory of the beautiful skies and water and gardens of times past. And now she has the books to help preserve the memories, a chronicle of happy times past and a wish she made that came true.
By Anna Isabel C. Sobrepeña