Invitation for hot chocolate and cheese rolls at the residence of painter Betsy Westendorp was something not to be missed—even at the peak of community quarantine. A very intimate group gathered in her living room where a large, unfinished portrait of beauty icon, Dawn Zulueta, leans against an aisle.
Adjacent to the space holding photographs of her children, old works, and a stunning landscape painting of Tagaytay, is the studio. Here, some of Betsy’s most remarkable paintings were brought to life. A mural depicting underwater life done in the artist’s distinctive strokes occupy an entire wall. “I was able to complete this while waiting for the former first lady [Imelda Marcos] to sit for her portrait,” she explains.
There is a charm about her that is candid, honest and eternally childlike. She is sincerely warm and witty, commenting that “I can’t hear very well and cannot understand you with that mask on. My daughter Carmen will sit with us so she can help me.” It is a balancing contrast to her innate beauty and grace—silver hair pulled back, a crisp white suit punctuated by a string of pearls and a green scarf.
Portraits Of Love
Before she went into landscapes, Betsy Westendorp’s foray into the arts began with portraiture. “I just loved it,” she remembers. “I started painting portraits of my family when I was 8. Then I trained under a hobby painter. I also spent a lot of time in the studio of a draftsman and illustrator to improve my technique.” For years, Betsy Westendorp remained inspired and captivated by the many expressions of her favorite subjects: family. She also found solitude in her work when her father, a military officer, and right wing member, was jailed in 1936. It was, according to her, a very sad period in her young life.
Like all things, heartbreaks are often balanced out by new loves. A random rendezvous in a café led her to Antonio Brias. “It was like a movie. Something that doesn’t happen everyday. It was love at first sight,” recalls the ageless beauty. “I immediately introduced Tony to my mother and she knew immediately that I meant to marry him.” Betsy, at only 22, married Antonio and made her way to start a family in the Philippines.
Home In The Land Of Smiles
Betsy Westendorp remembers that when she arrived in capital, she and her husband stayed billeted at the Manila Hotel for months. “Our home was still being constructed so we had to stay in the hotel.” Her new home, which she shared with her beloved Tony, was a sanctuary where the couple would raise their kids. They had three children: Isabel, Sylvia, and Carmen.
While all seemed rosy and bright, Tony’s bout with depression and a rare degenerative disease, was cause for heartbreak. “It was very difficult for all of us,” she and her daughter Carmen confides. Painting, once again became Betsy’s solitude and salvation.
She began to paint not only as a means of escaping her gloomy reality, but also to provide for her family.
A New Chapter In Madrid
It was through acquaintance with Philippine Ambassador to Spain, Luis Gonzales and his wife Vicky that Betsy Westendorp found new beginnings in Madrid. She details: “Vicky asked me one day, ‘Betsy, do you have a Philippine passport? We will have an exhibit in Madrid of Philippine painters.’” Although unsure about what it was she was going to present, Betsy agreed to take part of the exhibition.
“I told Vicky, ‘Help me, and I will be ready. I want to present portraits of important people,’” Betsy reminisces. Vicky did just that and more. She introduced the young artist to members of Spanish nobility. Shortly after, Betsy was scheduled to do portraits of the children of HRH Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon. Her first sitting was with a three-year-old boy, Infante Don Felipe, who would one day become King Felipe VI of Spain. “I could not have started any better and for that I am very lucky,” comments Betsy. It was only a matter of time before she would become the preferred portrait artist of the palace and select members of Spain’s affluent set.
Series Of Fortunate Events
“I had a lot of help and luck, but I also worked a lot,” says Betsy Westendorp. Her work, best identified by its distinct “angelic transparency of technique and style,” became the talk of the town in Madrid. Of the exhibitions she did, her collaboration with Joya is one she never fails to mention. “An art critic by the name of Leo Beneza invited me to do the show,” she remembers.
By the early 70s, Betsy Westendorp was working on a portrait of Imee Marcos who was visiting Madrid. This later gained her recognition at the Malacanan Palace. Soon she was back in Manila, where no less than the city’s most elite and current regime sat for her. She recalls lightheartedly that, “When I was working on the portrait of the former first lady [The South Sea Pearl], I would sometimes have to wait an entire day. I waited so long I actually managed to complete an entire mural.” The said mural now hangs in her home studio. By 1976, she was also knighted by His Majesty King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Of her many accomplishments and accolades as an artist, there is one that she considers as most important. “My show at Casa Madrid is the most unforgettable. To be able to showcase my work in the same place as Gaugin, Picasso or Chagall was really something,” she beams. It was at that point in her career when a contemporary of hers joked, “Betsy, you can now only exhibit in heaven.”
Falling In Love With Landscapes
Although it was through portraiture that Betsy Westendorp made her mark in the art world, she declares, “Portraiture is slavery. You have the person sitting for you who thinks she is perhaps prettier and higher than anyone else in the room.” Honesty of this caliber make Betsy an even more remarkable a subject to get to know and write about. It also helps that she is sincere and eternally kind, attributes she chooses to see in all her subjects.
Summers in Madrid where happy hours took place outdoors or chiringuitos, sparked a new romance with landscapes as seen through her series, Madrid by Night. Throughout the years, Betsy has exhibited dexterity for various mediums including pastel, oil, acrylic and tempera. When she began exploring plein air and still life, Betsy depicted azaleas, peonies, hydrangeas, sunflowers and orchids in full ethereal regalia. Hers were blooms of aristocracy, equal parts ephemeral and royal.
While there were many patches of greens and blooms to draw inspiration from in Madrid, the Philippines continues to be home for Betsy Westendorp and her artistry. “I love it here—the fellowship and people are friendly.” She names several special places that have brought color to her canvas. Tagaytay, a small city south of Manila, has been depicted by Betsy in iconic works like Tagaytay Sunrise, Kakawate Tree, and Lamadonna de Tagaytay.
The Artist, Her Storms, And Adventures
Throughout the many phases, places and people that she has encountered, two things remain constant for Betsy: her love for art and adventure. Her face lights up soon as she recalls a trip to the Banawe rice terraces with her daughter, Sylvia. “It was an incredible site. We were simply carried away and did not stop painting.” Against well-meaning advice both mother and daughter painted non-stop despite threats of a storm. “The typhoon did arrive and we drove back to the city amidst rain,” laughed Betsy.
Inside her studio also hangs a rare self portrait. She depicts herself as a woman clad in white standing in front of an aisle. Her garden in Aravaca is a fitting background to a visual narrative that is both poignant and pensive. The artist, known for capturing what is delightful and ephemeral in her subjects, paints herself as one looking through life and pondering about time. Perhaps, her concept of self has a lot to do with what she’s gained and lost. Her husband was taken from her by mental illness. Her only grandchild, gone too soon due to sepsis. And his mother, her daughter Isabel, taken from her by a heart failure. They say she died of a heartbreak. Throughout her pains, there were the peaks and and of course, her art.
It was sunset by the time our chat ended. The light in her dining area illuminated her silver hair, pulled back into a low bun. After a trip down memory lane, a few photographs and more hot chocolate, Betsy remarks: “It was a nice adventure and I like that. Life would be boring without it.”
You can still catch BESTY WESTENDORP’s Interlude at SALCEDO AUCTIONS located at the Ground and Podium Level of NEX Tower, 6786 Ayala Avenue, Makati City. For more information log on the Salcedo Auctions website. It runs until February 27. Meanwhile, the virtual retrospective exhibit of BETSY WESTENDORP at the Metropolitan Museum. Take a virtual tour through https://metmuseum.ph/.
Bianca Salonga is a lifestyle journalist who has been in publishing for the last two decades. She took up her MBA in Luxury Goods and Fashion in Paris, France. Both experience and higher education continue to inform her work as a brand story teller and advocate for purposeful living.
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