Finding Philippine Art in Washington, DC

Finding Philippine Art in Washington, DC

WASHINGTON, DC—A quiet ceremony is taking place at the US Supreme Court on March 15, 1953. The Detroit and Wayne County Federation of Labor is presenting a gift in honor of the late Justice Frank Murphy and his “deep concern to the plight of the working man.” A couple of years before his appointment to the Supreme Court, Murphy, as Governor of Michigan, had famously refused to use force in Flint, Michigan, to disband a sit-down strike and eject automobile workers at General Motors. Instead, an agreement was subsequently reached between management and workers, a landmark victory for the labor movement. At the Supreme Court, he was “an ardent defender of individual rights and social justice,” The New York Times wrote.

In this small, private gathering, the labor federation is donating a portrait that once belonged to the Murphy family, recently purchased after a successful fund-raising campaign led by the federation’s Murphy Memorial Committee. In attendance are Murphy’s family and friends, along with “Lady” Bumgardner, who was Murphy’s secretary when he served as the last Governor General of the Philippines. (Filipinos reportedly had difficulty pronouncing her last name and called her “Lady” instead.)

The ceremony unveils the painting: It is a portrait of Murphy by the Philippine National Artist Fernando C. Amorsolo, who knew Murphy when he was Governor General. The painting is currently on display at the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office.

This is one of many stories that we have collected over the past year while working on our website, Philippines on the Potomac ( It is our effort to trace people, places and events related to Philippine-American history and culture in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, our adopted home. Although most people think of Washington as a political hub—and indeed Washington has been home to both colonial officials as well as leaders of the Philippine independence movement during the first half of the 20th century and home to Philippine ambassadors and visiting dignitaries in the postwar years—Washington, it turns out, has also hosted many Filipino artists, serving as temporary home for some of them, or, in a few instances, their final home. Juan Luna under Secret Service surveillance and the watercolor paintings of architect Juan Arellano are among our surprising discoveries, along with many Filipino artistic treasures in unexpected places around the city. We share some of these stories in this article.

Juan Luna and the U.S. Secret Service

Juan Luna is best known as a painter and a leading member of the Propaganda Movement in Europe. In 1899, however, he was a visitor in Washington, DC. Together with Felipe Agoncillo, and other Philippine representatives, they came to block the U.S. Senate ratification of the December 1898 Treaty of Paris, an agreement that ended the Spanish-American war and, in the process, allowed the U.S. to acquire the Philippines from the Spanish Empire for $20 million. The Filipino delegates stayed at the Arlington Hotel and evidently made the locals nervous. “Since the Philippine delegation has been enlarged by the addition of several new members, it is harder to keep up with the movements of the Manila delegation,” according to The Washington Post, adding, “These archipelago diplomats are educated men, they are likewise shrewd.” But the Filipino visitors kept a predictable routine. “[At] about 10 o’clock every morning, a Secret Service man may be seen…somewhere in sight of the public exit of the Arlington Hotel. He doesn’t need to be on hand any sooner, because the Philippine legation does not come out until that time,” The Washington Post wrote.

The luxurious Arlington Hotel is no more and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs can be found where the hotel once stood. The U.S. Senate of course ultimately ratified the treaty and another half-century would pass before Philippine independence. Luna himself died some months later in Hong Kong. His monumental work, Spoliarium, which won the gold medal at the prestigious Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid in 1884, outlived him and is today on display at the National Museum in Manila. But in 1899, Luna and his companions stood at the corner of 15th and Vermont streets in Washington, between two centuries and rival powers, pressing bravely against certain colonial succession.

A Filipino Sculptor Meets a President

Amorsolo’s work was presented to the Supreme Court in 1953, as recounted earlier, though he himself, to the best of our knowledge, never visited Washington. However, his good friend and classmate, the National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo Tolentino, lived in Washington decades earlier. In 1919, Tolentino was a waiter at a restaurant near Rock Creek Park. Moved by President Woodrow Wilson’s peace efforts, Tolentino sculpted a mother-and-child statue (“Pax”) a little over two feet tall to give as a gift to the President. With help from Mrs. Wilson’s private secretary, a regular customer at the restaurant where Tolentino worked, a meeting was arranged between Tolentino and President Wilson.

“With the statue under my arm…I walked up the White House steps… He (Wilson) walked to the table and examined my statue and seemed greatly pleased with it,” Tolentino said, in an interview published years later in the Philippine Education Magazine. President Wilson offered to support Tolentino’s studies at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York. Business leader and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch later provided him with a monthly allowance. “I have seen some of your work, and I am very much interested in it,” Baruch wrote to Tolentino in September 1919, initiating contact. Although Baruch first offered to give $100, Tolentino declined and said $75 “would be enough.” Baruch sent him the amount regularly while Tolentino lived in New York and until he moved to Europe some years later.

There is evidence of a fairly regular correspondence between Mrs. Wilson, and Tolentino over the next few years, including after the Wilsons had left the White House. In one letter, she wrote that the former President kept the statue in his room and “often says it gives him new courage to fight for the things he believes are the only hope of the world!” The statue is still on display at the master’s bedroom of the Woodrow Wilson House.

The Newlywed Anita Magsaysay-Ho 

“Our first home was a two-story brick house on Wisconsin Avenue,” wrote Anita Magsaysay-Ho in An Artist’s Memoirs, her spare, elegant autobiography.  Newly married, she and her husband Roberto moved from San Francisco to Washington in 1948 and lived a quiet life. In her memoirs there are stories about spending time with friends who worked at the Philippine Embassy and entertaining visitors, among them, her cousin and future Philippine president, Ramon Magsaysay, then a young congressman. “I was so happy I could prepare Filipino dishes for him,” she recalled. Some years later, her first daughter Helen was born at the Georgetown University Hospital and baptized at St. Ann’s Cathedral near their homes.

Once, while traveling alone with her infant daughter on her way to meet her husband in New York, she found a familiar face among the passengers. The artist Galo Ocampo, an old classmate, was on the same train with his wife Loretta. They spent the rest of the trip talking about “the good old days,” Magsaysay-Ho amazed at the happy coincidence of meeting an old friend on the 11 pm train.

Though busy with running a household, she found time to draw city scenes – Chinatown (using Hotel Washington’s stationery, reproduced in An Artist’s Memoirs), the grocery across her house that sold “freshly killed chickens,” and an antique store.  She also joined a large group exhibit at the Artists Cooperative. The Washington Post’s art critic Jane Watson Crane singled her out and another young artist, Katherine Sater, both fueling “a desire to see more of their work.” With unusually keen foresight she declared Magsaysay-Ho as “a personal, distinctive impression well worth watching.”

The Versatile Galo Ocampo

Galo Ocampo, together with National Artists Carlos Francisco and Victorio Edades, formed a triumvirate of artists known for advocating realism in visual art, in contrast to an older generation of artists who portrayed romanticized scenes of Philippine life.  Hector Tiongson, who has provided invaluable research and primary source materials to the Philippines on the Potomac project, recently wrote about Ocampo at length, “Brush with Greatness”, published in Positively Filipino.

Following Ocampo’s retirement, and after a long productive career holding diverse positions such as foreign-service staff of distinguished diplomat Carlos P. Romulo, professor at the University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University, and Director of the National Museum, Ocampo and his wife Loretta moved to the Washington area in 1981. Ocampo’s creativity had been boundless – he designed the Philippine seal (approved by Philippine Congress in 1946) and the stained glass windows at Manila Cathedral and Santo Domingo Church. In Arlington, the prolific Ocampo continued to paint but also acquired a new hobby—gardening. In one of the many reflective letters he wrote to his friends, he described it “a thrill to see the seed of my sitao sprout, mature, and thrive, for did I not once plant the seed of my Brown Madonna in 1938 and look at the products I generated of Filipino Madonnas now.” He was, of course, referring to his most famous work, “Brown Madonna,” a portrait of Mary and the child Jesus represented by a Filipino mother and child, an interpretation that was thought revolutionary at the time.

During his retirement, Ocampo became an active member of his parish, St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Arlington. One day he asked the parish priest if he could do anything in return for the prayers offered by the parish for his wife Loretta who was then ill. The priest asked him to repaint the Stations of the Cross and the statues on the altar. Although it seemed like an unfamiliar task (“I didn’t study this in Rome in the 50s”, he wrote to a friend), he felt unable to refuse, promptly completed the work, and, not surprisingly, impressed everyone. Near the end of his life, Ocampo also painted a portrait of St. Ann, still on display at the second floor of the parish center.

When Ocampo died in 1985, he was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors, in recognition of his service as an officer of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) during the World War II. Four years after his death, an exhibit of his works called “Mithi” was held at the Charles Sumner School in downtown Washington.  In 2013, art critic Alice Guillermo’s book, The Life and Times of Galo B. Ocampo, was published in celebration of Ocampo’s centennial year.

Pacita Abad, Global Citizen and DC Resident

Bold colors, huge canvasses, a dynamic style and social awareness characterize Pacita Abad’s more than 3,500 works of art. These works include paintings, prints, collages, trapunto (quilted paintings), ceramics, glass and a bridge she painted in Singapore. Abad lived and worked tirelessly all over the world throughout her life but for a brief period, from 1986 to 1994, she was a DC resident.

In Washington, she exhibited her work at diverse venues like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Metro Center Station, and the Martin Luther King Library, in addition to Washington’s art galleries. She designed her 16th Street home with her husband. A feature article published in The Washington Post described it as a “three-story paint box of vibrant colors that is chock-full of larger-than-life art and hand-carved and hand-woven objects scoured from travels to more than 100 countries”. She was “the darling of the community,” standing out in conservative Washington with her colorful wardrobe and warm personality.

Abad died in Singapore in 2004 at the age of 58 following a three-year battle with cancer. But her artistic creations worldwide live on. In Washington, they are with the Metro Headquarters, Sallie Mae, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the World Bank, and several private institutions.

A Century of Filipino Artistic Exhibits in Washington 

In addition to those who made their homes in Washington, Filipino artists have been exhibiting their works in Washington’s museums and galleries for almost a century. Juan M. Arellano displayed his watercolors at the Arts Club of Washington in 1926 to much acclaim. “There is an uplift about them that is quite irresistible,” wrote Ada Rainey. Juan Arellano is known for architectural landmarks such as the Manila Post Office and the Metropolitan Theater and watercolor painting was “only a relaxation” from his job as consulting architect of the Philippines, he told The Washington Post. A decade later, José Joya exhibited his work in a group exhibit at the Gres Gallery (Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist famous for using large, inflated figures in his paintings was among the artists featured in the exhibit). “Three small abstractions were very well handled, especially the very tiny ‘Fountain’,” said The Washington Post. In 1957, Romeo Tabuena’s 19×19 foot mural at the Philippine Embassy had guests “gasping with admiration.” The country scenes he brought to life showed a style “bold in execution, strong in color, modern technique,” an art critic wrote.

In 1954, a landmark artistic fair, the “First Philippine Cultural Exhibition”, was held at the Philippine Chancery. This exhibit featured 102 paintings by 21 artists, among them National Artists Victorio Edades, Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Vicente Manansala, and HR Ocampo, and many other important artists. Since then, the Philippine Embassy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other institutions, have been regular sites for Filipino artistic exhibits.  “Brown Strokes on a White Canvas” is an annual, traveling exhibit of Filipino-American artists. The World Bank-IMF Filipino Association recently presented “Identity and the Diaspora,” an exhibit of young Filipino-American artists.

From February to May of 2013, the Phillips Collection presented an exhibit, “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet” featuring the works of Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio and Jean Dubuffet.  Though in revered company, Ossorio was “arguably the star” and “a formidable, passionate, moving artist in his own right,” according to art critics. Born in the Philippine province of Negros, Ossorio studied in private schools in England and the United States. He was considered “one of the most colorful figures in postwar American art” and was both an artist and a patron, providing financial support and artistic inspiration to Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet.

Along with these temporary exhibits, Filipino art can be found among Washington’s permanent collections and presidential repositories. Two U.S. Presidents received Amorsolos while in office. In 1949, President Elpidio Quirino presented President Harry Truman’s portrait by Amorsolo acknowledging Truman’s “deep love for the Philippine people and whose friendship we now enjoy”. The Harry S. Truman Museum in Missouri owns the painting (“I shall treasure it all my life,” Truman told Quirino), though not presently on display. In 1962, the visiting Macapagal children, Arturo, Gloria and Disodado Jr. gave President John Kennedy an Amorsolo painting.  The painting, called “Philippine Village,” is now part of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum collection in Massachusetts. In Washington, two murals by Jose Blanco and his family can be found at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Concepcion. Ossorio’s works are in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.

Some Concluding Notes: Philippine Art in Our Adopted City

Our list is, of course, not at all exhaustive. And while we have focused on the older generation of Filipino artists, a number of younger Filipino-American artists have established themselves in Washington in recent years and in the art world, more generally. A leading member of this generation is Joey Manlapaz, who was born in the Philippines, moved to the U.S. in her teens, and obtained her MFA from George Washington University. Her work can be found among the artistic collections of numerous private and public institutions, including the Library of Congress, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. State Department. She designed the poster of the 2003 Library of Congress Book Festival. A 2009 exhibition at the Corcoran Art Gallery, “Through the Looking Glass,” featured her intricate paintings of reflections on storefront windows. A reproduction of her work is on permanent display at the Bethesda Metro Station.

Over a year into the Philippines on the Potomac project, we see Washington differently. Knowing that Juan Luna once walked the streets of DC, how Fernando Amorsolo’s art commemorates a turning point in the history of the U.S. labor movement and how a Washington Post critic once saw the young Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s artistic gifts very clearly, have all permanently changed the way we view Washington. And certainly it has been gratifying to see our cultural heritage among the city’s national treasures. At the same time, we take great pride in seeing how this cultural inheritance, in no small measure, has also shaped Washington’s artistic landscape.


Titchie?Carandang-Tiongson?is?a?freelance?writer.?Her?articles?have?been?published?in?Newsbreak Magazine, Northern?Virginia?Magazine,?Positively Filipino, Smart Parenting, and Working?Mom.?

Erwin R. Tiongson is an economist. His personal essays have been published in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Washingtonian. 

They live in Fairfax, VA with their children, Nicolas and Rafael.


All references are available on request from the authors.

Email Email  |  Print Print

Leave a Reply