Sociedad and Academia: Intellectual and Social Currents in the Establishment of the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura in 1821


In 1823, the Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais founded the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, which absorbed the painting school in Tondo initiated in 1821 by Damian Domingo (1796?-1834). The fusion created the first secular institution of art instruction in the country and became the most visible lasting contribution of the economic society. The involvement of the Sociedad in the Academia is a case study of the liberal agenda and aspirations of the Sociedad, composed mainly of nineteenth-century men of influence. Their participation in the propagation of art and art education would prove to be an essential development in Philippine art history, setting foundational conceptualizations of “Philippine art” and of “Filipino artists”. This paper presents the intellectual and social currents that led to the founding of the Academia, based on a careful analysis of historical documents and recontextualization of established accounts on the subject. In the course of the discussion, the study also briefly discusses the life of Damian Domingo, a mestizo de sangley by his own claim, considered by art historians as the First Filipino Painter. We discuss the institutional aspects of the Manila art scene during his time and identify Domingo’s contemporaries as well as his successors who carried on with his vision of an egalitarian Academia. The paper traces how artists, maestros, and patrons involved in the Academia advanced the establishment of a creative class informed by the implicit goal of developing the culture of the nascent Filipino nation.


The known documents pertaining to the founding of the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, the first art academy established in the Philippines in 1821, can probably fit in a single Manila folder. But even with meager sources, the story of the Academia’s historic founding has been enriched through the studies of Carlos Quirino in the 1960s and Luciano PR Santiago in the 1980s-1990s. Beyond these foundational works, there has been little to nothing written about what can arguably be considered a climactic point in colonial education in the Philippines. Santiago and Quirino’s studies have not been expanded upon by other scholars due to the scarcity of documents that could be mined for new insights as well as the inaccessibility of the archives. As such, there has been no study that traces the ideological roots of the Academia; why and how Filipinos saw the need for an art school at a time when other, arguably more pragmatic, institutions could have been the beneficiary of philanthropic backing?
Based mainly on an 1894 biographical sketch by Miguel Zaragoza, much is known about the founder of the Academia, the mestizo painter Damian Domingo and his dozen or so works, enough to constitute a 224-page, lavishly illustrated book published in 2010. This follows the publication written by the same author with additional text by Nick Joaquin written in 1990.
Often mentioned in passing without substantial detail is the role of a civic organization, the Sociedad Economica Filipina de Amigos del Pais (The Philippine Economic Society of Friends of the Country), in the founding of the Academia. Efforts in the last decade to digitize the archives of the University of Santo Tomas afford the present researcher the opportunity to translate and analyze the previously under-examined papers belonging to the Sociedad, an important colonial institution that has been the subject of a dedicated scholarly study only in 1966. There have been a number of studies in economic history, though, that have used the various documents of the Sociedad, namely, its Estatutos (statutes), Boletins (bulletins), Resumen (minutes), Memorias (memoirs or yearbooks) and other marginalia such as certificates issued and commemorative artifacts (pins, seals, etc). The extant histories detailing the emergence of the Academia and the Sociedad have been revisited in light of this recent trove of digitized documents.
Without an understanding of the activities of the Sociedad, the Academia tends to be celebrated in standard accounts as an extraordinary event, rather than the logical result of a vigorous drive within civil society for economic growth in Manila during the first quarter of the 19th century. Such accounts credit the action of individual actors rather than socio-civic organizations as the impetus behind the founding of the first art school. Thus, the three-fold purpose of this paper is to provide a closer examination of Santiago and Quirino’s studies, to reintroduce the role of the Sociedad in the founding of the art academy, and to resituate the place of Damian Domingo, not as the fountainhead founder of the Academia, but as the nineteenth-century embodiment of the Filipino cultural worker, one who acted on the liberal ideals of the Sociedad. The study does not seek to strip Damian Domingo of his status as founder of the Academia. Rather, we seek to substantiate this claim by relating important details of his biography to his milieu, in which the activities of the Sociedad and its ideal of a modern art education played equally important roles.
By a number of accounts, Domingo was likely the sole instructor of the Academia which he ran simultaneously with his studio, but he was not alone in his aspiration for an art school. The spread and propagation of Enlightenment ideas within the colony allowed for an art academy to be perceived as an important tool for achieving economic progress, and this appealed to a broad sector of society. While Domingo’s missionary zeal was definitely a catalyst, larger social forces enabled him to establish and run the Academia for at least thirteen years.
In the following account, we shall present a timeline of the first Academia that begins with the statement of plans of the Sociedad in 1782. Although this study focuses exclusively on events concerning the first Academia, we propose that the history of the first Academia does not end with the death of Damian Domingo in 1834 or with the closing of the academy shortly after. It considers the revival of the Academia in 1845 through the efforts of the Sociedad as a continuation of a community effort of which Domingo was the main protagonist. We shall establish a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent incarnations of the Academia in the 200 years that followed.
We seek to present our case study of art institution building during the Spanish colonial period for new insights that it can give us regarding the present critical discussion of creative work and the creative industries in the Philippines. By evaluating the institutional settings of art education in this specific period of Philippine colonial history, we acquaint ourselves with the social forces that have impacted the history of visual arts in the Philippines, which in turn provide the historical basis for the cultural legitimization of artmaking as a professional field and the rise of the Ilustrado artist as a modern intellectual and creative steward of an emerging nation.

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