December 27, 2004


One of the most beautiful portraits painted by Juan Luna now hangs in the “music room” of Malacañang Palace.

Known as La Bulaqueña, this serene portrait of a Filipina in a Maria Clara outfit is very popular because it is one of the few “Philippine” canvases that Luna painted.

As soon as its scheduled restoration is finished, there will surely be renewed interest in this portrait. The question people will ask is, “Who is La Bulaqueña?”

Ask the Malacañang Palace guides for an answer and you will get a lot of different answers.

One thing is sure, though: La Bulaqueña, sometimes referred to as “Maria Clara,” was never a Malacañang occupant. Dated 1895 or a year before the outbreak of Andres Bonifacio’s revolt against Spain, Luna, having killed his wife and mother-in-law, was very much a widower. He and his brother, Antonio, were what would be considered today a “prize catch,” in spite of their bad tempers. It is, therefore, not farfetched to think that this woman could be one of the women Luna courted. Philippine Daily Globe columnist E.A. Cruz, in his monograph on Luna, says: “One does not paint with such grace and affection an ordinary creature, and Luna’s tender sentiments were, doubtless, at least partly reciprocated.”

Who then is this unidentified “daughter of a prominent family who [Luna] missed marrying?” At least two books have pointed to a certain Dolores Sabas, daughter of Doña Mariquita Sabas in whose home at 2 Espeleta Street, Binondo, were held many tertulias frequented by the Luna brothers. Antonio Luna was said to have been one of the best guitar players in Manila in his time, so he would have been drawn to one of Doña Mariquita’s daughters — either Francisca, nicknamed “Paquita,” or Dolores, who was called “Loleng.” It is the latter who is believed to be La Bulaqueña. That is, if you believe what you read in books.

Oral history says something else. The Manila Times columnist Rosalinda Orosa, who owns another beautiful Luna canvas, Tampuhan, has her own candidate for La Bulaqueña.

Her Tampuhan shows two people, perhaps lovers, seated in the sala of a house. The man is looking out of the window into the street, while the woman has her eyes on the floor, which very likely gives the title tampuhan to this canvas.

The man, according to Ms. Orosa, is Luna’s friend, Ariston Bautista, a Filipino who studied medicine in Europe. The woman is said to be Emiliana Trinidad, her ancestor who, she claims, posed for La Bulaqueña. Can this be true?

Dr. Asuncion N. Fernando has the most interesting candidate — Maria “Iyang” Rodrigo Fernando. Intrigued by the fact that she had never seen her grandmother and that her relatives never discussed lola while she was growing up, she did her own research. All she was told about her enigmatic Lola Iyang was that she brought food to katipuneros hiding in the fields outside her town, carried messages through enemy lines and that, in this life as courier, she was killed in an “encounter.”

Having exhausted all the accounts of her relatives, Dr. Fernando contacted Bulacan historian Antonio Valeriano, who gave her basically the same story about her grandmother “riding off into the sunset and never coming back.” Valeriano noted that Luna’s La Bulaqueña has the bushy eyebrows and sad eyes which characterize the face of a Rodrigo. To prove this, he challenges anyone to take a good look at Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo. Valeriano believes Maria Fernando is La Bulaqueña. Maria Fernando’s story is good enough for a movie but, despite the interesting background, the problem is that there are no photographs to prove the very likely point.

I guess this is also true of the two other candidates. Belen Ponferrada of the Malacañang Museum says their research on the identity of La Bulaqueña comes to about the same as the foregoing stuff.

Nevertheless, a handful of visitors to the palace have told guides that the woman in the painting is their grandmother, or grandaunt, or something. Unfortunately, we cannot even say, “Will the real Bulaqueña please stand up?”

(11 November 1989)