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The Mystery of Juan Luna’s "Cursed" Painting

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

Mi Novia painting, believed to be Luna's wife.

Mi Novia painting, believed to be Luna's wife.

The Filipino people will always be thankful for the two Luna brothers, Juan and Antonio. Heroic blood runs in their veins, but they took different paths to greatness. One became a world class artist that earned the admiration of the royals of Spain, while the other excelled in the art of war and fought as a revolutionary leader during the Filipino-American war.

But if there is one thing that the two Lunas had in common, it was their tendency for violent outbursts. The temper they could unleash was the stuff of legends. And they could get particularly nasty when the women they love were involved.

José Rizal knew too well how it felt to be on the receiving end of a Luna’s temper. He and Antonio once fancied the same girl, and they had a rivalry that almost turned fatal. Thanks to too much alcohol, the two were about to duel. Thankfully, cooler heads intervened. Antonio himself came to his senses and made amends for his misdeeds.

His brief altercation with Rizal over a woman could be something to laugh at as men today could relate to the situation. Unfortunately for Juan, his temper came with a tragic price. It destroyed his family and nearly ruined his career. And one painting was connected to this tragic event, a painting said to carry a curse.

Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, Luna's wife.

Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, Luna's wife.

Juan Luna's Troubled Love Life

Unlike his brother, Juan Luna managed to get himself a wife, though his life as a married man was far from perfect. Juan was 29 years old, two years after his Spoliarium won him lasting fame, when he married Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, or simply Paz. They settled in Paris, where Paz bore him a son, Andres, the future famed architect of the Philippines. The first two years were happy for the couple, until a certain man came in their life, named Monseiur Dussaq. Luna never liked how Paz spoke fondly of the man, and things never improved when Dussaq came for a visit.

Jealously would trigger Luna’s infamous temper.

Things went sour, with Luna threatening his wife if she continued speaking to other men, particularly with Duzzaq. This led to domestic violence, until Paz had enough and left. Luna followed his wife upon learning that Dussaq was also staying in the house Paz escaped to. This led to a chain of events that proved disastrous for Luna and his wife.

The Portrait of a Lady

Luna’s extreme jealously was a grim indication of his toxic fondness of his wife. He loved his wife so much that, according to some people, he created a painting of her.

Luna was accepted as a painter at the Salon de Paris, a prestigious annual exhibition in the Western world at that time. The reason for that was because of his two paintings, Odalisque and the somewhat ominous Mi Novia.

Mi Novia literally means My Girlfriend. The piece is also known as Portrait of a Lady. This is a painting portraying a woman in bed. Her clothes are dropping and she is holding a rosary. A prayer book sits next to her. It evokes sensuality and innocence with its delicate brushstrokes that evokes an emotional response from the viewer. The portrait, completed in 1890, was meant to please, and one might wonder who the woman was. There is a belief that the painting is a portrait of Paz, Luna’s wife. Because of this, people believe that the painting carries a curse.

A headline detailing Luna's murder.

A headline detailing Luna's murder.

Murder of Luna's Wife

Juan Luna suspected infidelity and went on a rampage. He followed his wife to the place where she sought refuge. It was said that he beat her with a cane the following day. With the threats of murder looming, Paz’s mother, Juliana, called her other sons to protect her daughter. In the morning of September 22, 1892, Paz’s brothers were away for breakfast, but Juliana and Paz stumbled upon Luna holding a revolver. Gunshots were fired, and the brothers Trinidad and Felix rushed back to the house, where they were seriously wounded by Luna. As for the mother and daughter, Luna found them in the toilet. He shot Juliana first in the head before turning the gun on his wife.

The crime of murder should have earned Luna a prison sentence, but surprisingly, he was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity. This was the result of the law favoring men at that time. The culture at the time was lenient towards men killing their adulterous wives. Therefore, Luna was granted freedom.

And as for the painting, rumors and legends suggests that Luna was working on it when he murdered his wife and mother-in-law. His criminal act imbued the portrait with a curse that brings misfortune for its owners. Some say that Paz’s restless ghost possesses the painting.

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Imee Marcos, one of the recipients of the curse.

Imee Marcos, one of the recipients of the curse.

The Curse of the Painting

No one was sure how the painting ended up in Manila. The same can be said on how the story of the curse started. Nevertheless, a series of tragic events has convinced people that the painting is jinxed. Here are a few examples. Manuel Garcia, the first owner of the painting, was a successful businessman who went bankrupt after bringing home the painting. Betty Bantung Benitez, another owner, died in a car crash on her way to Tagaytay. The painting was then bought by Tony Nazareno, who suffered misfortunes and fell ill. He then sold the painting to Imee Marcos, who suffered a miscarriage while her family fell from political grace.

The idea of a cursed object created by a known Filipino hero might sound frightening, but it's appealing all the same.

The woman in Parisian Life resembles the one in Mi Novia.

The woman in Parisian Life resembles the one in Mi Novia.

The Reality

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to back them up. Seeing how a pattern of misfortune emerges with the owners of the painting, it is easy to believe the cursed story. But going by this logic, the National Museum, the home of the painting since 1986, should have met a similar fate. No tragedy has occurred. In fact, the museum is still in a good shape since it acquired the painting. There haven't been any records of tragic employee deaths, and the building is still standing.

This simple logic seems to debunk the curse. A friend even joked that it was dumb for the Marcos to blame their downfall on the painting as it was them who brought their misfortunes on themselves.

There is also the fact that some people doubt that the woman in the painting is Paz.

For starters, Paz never resembled the woman. When compared with existing pictures of Luna’s ill-fated wife, the woman in the portrait has Caucasian features, with pinkish fair skin and brownish hair. Paz had darker skin, and her facial structure was uncannily Filipina. Some even joked that, unlike the more feminine woman in Luna’s painting, Paz looks more masculine. And in Luna’s other artworks, such as Parisian Life, the woman sitting on the couch had a resemblance to the woman in Mi Novia. And the same face is also present in Luna's other paintings, such as La Bete Humaine.

Some historian proposed that it was made that way, as an idealized version of Luna’s wife. The portrait itself is a depiction of Luna’s married life in happier times, a representation of both marital and sensual romance.

Nevertheless, it is obviously clear that the woman in the painting is not Paz. So who was the enigmatic model? The answer lies in Luna’s notebooks, where he described his model as having a beautiful pinkish skin and a proportioned body. After some research, it was determined that the woman was Angela Duche, a French woman that was a favorite of Luna.

References

1. Gomez, Jerome (20 January 2017), "The Curse of Juan Luna's "Portrait of a Lady"." esquiremag.ph

2. Limos, Mario Alvaro (18 June 2019), "The Darker Life of Juan Luna: A Tale of Jealousy and Murder." esquiremag.ph

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on February 22, 2021:

Thanks bhattuc!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 21, 2021:

Nice presentation.

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