Pioneers of Southeast Asian Art in Europe

Tedrick Yau
Pioneers of Southeast Asian Art in Europe


Works by Southeast Asian artists Juan Luna and Raden Saleh are on exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore

SINGAPORE – Marvel at the ongoing exhibitions on 19th century art at National Gallery Singapore. Art history enthusiasts will appreciate the latest showcase, Century of Light.

It brings to the stage the progression from neo-classical styles to the many changes leading to neo-impressionism. Comprised of two special exhibitions, walk through the changing strokes, moods, and landscapes that continue to influence artists all over the world.

The kick-off point is the exhibit entitled, Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. Chronicling the lives of two Asian artists, it highlights their ascent in Europe and the recognition they reaped in their respective home countries. Beautifully displayed, it unites a number of the artists’ masterpieces on loan both from public and private collections.

Hailing from Java, Indonesia, Raden Saleh already exhibited a talent for drawing at a very young age. Born an aristocrat, the stature and connections of his family afforded him a number of privileges – including mentorship from Dutch landscape painter Antoine Payen.

Years past and he was able to travel and managed to secure permission to stay in the Netherlands. While he was there, he received formal training in portrait and genre, as well as landscape painting.

His life in The Hague was prolific, sparking a fascination for painting animals. Little did he know that it would be his first foray into Orientalist painting. While attending the animal show of tamer Henri Martin, he was inspired to paint lions. Visiting Martin’s menagerie, he saw a number of animals and birds but it was still the lion that intrigued him most.

WILDLIFE. Lions were among Raden Saleh's favorite subjects. Photo by Tedrick Yau/Rappler

Studying the lion’s anatomy allowed him to understand the animals’ form and structure completely. At times, he made 3 paintings of a single lion to hone and demonstrate his eye in capturing details. His Romantic style of painting a lively subject became a signature trademark.

In the span of his career, he painted a number of animals and hunts, as well as landscapes and seascapes. His landscape paintings showed the mountains and temples of Java. At the height of Dutch explorations, seascapes and marine art gained wide popularity and have become a painting tradition. Saleh’s works often depict the tempestuous conditions of a storm showing man versus nature.

LIONS. Raden Saleh was fascinated by the animal. Photo by Tedrick Yau/Rappler

Saleh will forever hold the distinction of being the first ever Indonesian to have received proper artistic training in Europe. In Germany and Paris, his signature Orientalist paintings of animal fights and hunts were widely acclaimed. Eventually, King Willem III of the Netherlands conferred Saleh with the title, “King’s Painter”.

Juan Luna, the Philippines’ pride, is no different from Saleh. As already taught in local history classes, Luna initially took up nautical studies, a far cry from what he really wanted.

Even at a young age, he was determined to pursue his passion of being an artist. With the support of his parents, he was sent to Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Spain for formal art schooling, becoming one of the first Filipinos who studied art abroad. From there, he started his prolific journey.

Displayed are some of his most memorable pieces. “Cleopatra” from 1881 depicts the climactic death of Egypt’s queen in exquisite and vivid colors. This piece won him the second class medal at Spain’s 1881 Exposición General de Bellas Artes – Luna’s first major prize in Europe. He later received the 1884 first class medal, and acclaim both for himself and the Philippines, for one of his most important works, “Spoliarium”.

CLEOPATRA. The painting is Juan Luna's first award-winning piece. Photo by Tedrick Yau/Rappler

The two versions of “España y Filipinas” are also for viewing. Víctor Balaguer, then Spanish Minister of Colonies, had a vision of stronger ties between Spain and the Philippines – the former being thought of as the mother country.

Looking upward, the image implies that both Spain and the Philippines are mutually on a progressive path together. Although both images retain the same subject and image, the latest version is a larger rendition with contemporary attires, livelier colors, and polished styles.

His life in Paris was also colorful. Luna participated in salon shows while accepting commissioned portraits – a style he became quite known for. On display are portraits of stylish women dressed in the chic fashion of the times.

PORTRAITS. Juan Luna painted many portraits of European women. Photo by Tedrick Yau/Rappler

Translated as the unknown ones, “Les Ignorés” is his major extant work in Realism. Shifting from historical paintings to social realities, the painting depicts a gloomy mood with its darker hues, image of a funeral, with mourners of modest clothing.

Born in France, this style of painting highlights the lives of the working class to the poverty-stricken people. In a letter to his best friend and the Philippines’ national hero José Rizal, Luna said, “I entitled my picture of the burial ‘Les Ignorés’ and, as you will have seen, I am now concerned with the humble and dispossessed.” Coincidentally, a painting of Rizal by Luna is also on display.

After 17 years in Europe, Luna returned to the Philippines and made smaller paintings of local sceneries and landscapes. When the revolution broke out, the Spanish authorities arrested him and his brother Antonio for being involved with the Katipunan rebel army.

After being pardoned by the Spanish government, Luna completed a number of family portraits before returning to Spain. The loving portrait, “Nena y Tinita”, displayed in the exhibit shows Luna’s eldest sister Nena and her daughter Tinita wearing the traditional camisa and pañuelo.

The latter years of Luna were spent in service of the Philippine government until his death in 1899. –

Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna is ongoing until March 11, 2018 at National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Rd, Singapore. For more information, visit

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