Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin (1867 – 1939)
by Eloisa May P. Hernandez, Ph.D.
Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin was born on June 9, 1867 in Pateros, Rizal. Her parents were Venancio Mendoza and Evarista Gotianquin. She was the second child in a family of five children. Pelagia displayed an interest in art since she was a child. According to Gregorio Zaide in Great Filipinos in History: An Epic of Filipino Greatness in War and Peace, “Since early childhood, she manifested a remarkable talent for art. When she was yet a little girl she loved to sketch beautiful landscapes, to embroider exquisite designs on handkerchiefs, and model clay figurines people, animals, birds, and flowers” (340).
Pelagia is the first known woman sculptor in the Philippines. She studied modeling under D. Manuel Flores (Zaragoza 374). She was the first female student to be accepted at the Escuela de Dibujo y Pintura. Mendoza was twenty-two years old when Lorenzo Rocha, director of the Escuela, accepted her. According to Santiago, “Far from being a male chauvinist, he (Rocha) admitted and personally supervised the first female student at the academy, Pelagia Mendoza in 1889. (This made the academy the only coeducational institution in the Philippines during the Spanish regime.)” (“Philippine Academic Art” 75). According to Alejandro Capitulo in his biography of Pelagia titled “Women in History: Dona Pelagia Mendoza,” she completed her course in painting in 1892 and in sculpture in 1898.
According to Torres, Pelagia won first prize in sculpture for a wax bust of Christopher Columbus at the Columbus Quadricentennial Art Contest, a competition organized by the colonial government, held on October 12, 1892. Pelagia had not yet completed her course on sculpture when she won the contest. According to Capitulo, there was even a side issue on who was going to do the honor of crowning Pelagia’s bust of Columbus: whether Pelagia or the Governor General should do it. A local paper, El Comercio, stated that the honor belonged to Mendoza and not the Governor General. Mendoza did crown the bust, after which she was given the medal for the prize by Governor General Eulogio Despujol y Dusoy himself.
Upon winning the competition, she landed on the front page of La Ilustracion Filipina, a well-known periodical of that period, on October 21, 1892. Jose Zaragoza (under the pseudonym Z) wrote an accompanying essay in the same issue. Here is an excerpt: “If her hands still model, not with indecision, but with a certain fear; if her work still lacks a greatness and energy in its modeling; it is not exactly because the artistic sentiments that her spirit are feminine; it is because she still has not conquered the deeper secrets of her art; it is because her hands, at modeling, still do not obey well the impulses of her spirit. There is still some doubt in our artists, and that doubt produces fear, fear that tries to conceal itself with more than enough care, and this care gives naturally little spontaneity and with certain trifleness to the execution.”
What Jose Zaragoza wrote about Pelagia Mendoza may well be the very first biography about a woman artist in the Philippines. It is safe to say that Pelagia’s winning the competition marks the very first time a woman artist broke into and entered this public domain of art. I would like to briefly comment on Jose Zaragoza’s article by asking a few questions: Just what did Jose Zaragoza mean by “greatness,” and what are his criteria for judging a work “great”? What is “feminine” about Pelagia’s work? Perhaps it is “feminine” because it was done by a woman?
Whitney Chadwick offers an insight into such a description of works done by women: Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. Discussions of style are consistently cast in terms of masculinity and femininity. Analyses of paintings are replete with references to ”virile” handling of form or ”feminine” touch. (25)
It is telling that in the very first essay on a woman artist, her work is immediately relegated as “feminine.” And just what could Zaragoza mean by “impulses of her spirit”? Do we take it to mean that art is just an impulse of the spirit transferred into hand and later into canvas and stone? It seems that the “impulses” of Pelagia’s spirit are also anchored into her being a woman in that women are also associated to impulsiveness in many cases.
Pelagia’s bust of Columbus also reaped honors internationally. According to Santiago Pilar, Pelagia also won the second prize at the 1892 Chicago Universal Exposition for her bust of Columbus at the Quadricentennial celebrations of the explorer (PAMANA 67). This honor makes Pelagia Mendoza the very first woman artist in the Philippines who was bestowed international recognition. In the same year, Pelagia also won a Diploma of Honor for her work done in connection to the art contest held for the celebration of the Tercentenary of Saint John of the Cross. According to Capitulo, because of her achievements as a sculptor, Pelagia was given the Cruz de Merito Civil by Governor General Despujol. This recognition suggests that, as early as 1892, Pelagia was already making her mark in the field of sculpture.
Pelagia was also recognized for her skill in painting. Capitulo notes that “Even in the dainty art of the brush and the easel, she had won distinctions as prize winner in school contests. Her forte was in landscape painting. Her interest was not confined to sculpture and painting alone but also expressed itself in embroidery stitching, on exquisite handkerchiefs and furniture covers.”
According to E. Arsenio Manuel, Pelagia Mendoza married Crispulo Zamora (b. June 10, 1871 – d. October 11, 1922) on June 10, 1892 (Dictionary 1: 488). They had seven children and sixteen grandchildren. Zamora was a silversmith and a classmate of Pelagia at the Escuela de Dibujo y Pintura. According to Alejandro Capitulo, Doña Mendoza’s marriage to Zamora got in the way of developing her “artistic abilities.” And most probably, because of her many chores as wife and mother, Pelagia was unable to devote time to her art.
In a column written by Amante Paredes and Rod Dayao titled Interesting Filipino Women in the Manila Chronicle on May 19, 1958, it is stated that “the couple started a business making religious medal and other ornaments.” For Capitulo, the Crispulo Zamora and Sons, Inc., located at 423 Sales St., Quiapo, Manila, was “the foremost engraving house in the country.”
Pelagia did not submit a work for the 1895 Exposion Regional de Filipinas en Manila. According to Regalado Trota Jose, this was probably because she was already busy attending to her many duties as a newly wed bride (1030 R. Hidalgo 61). But according to E.A. Manuel, Crispulo, her husband, joined and won a prize for his galvanoplated bust of Fr. Anaya, a chanter at the Manila Cathedral (Dictionary 1: 488).
When Crispulo Zamora died on October 11, 1922, it was Pelagia who took over their business. Pelagia traveled to China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Indo-china to study the processes and designs for carving in the said places (Zaide 343). Presumably, the business took her more and more away from her art. However, Capitulo notes that she found time for her art, while she was tending to their store. Pelagia Mendoza died on March 12, 1939, after two months of illness at the age of 72. She was buried at the North Cemetery.
Unfortunately, not one of Pelagia’s works survives today. According to Raissa Rivera in Women Artists and Gender Issues in Nineteenth Century Philippines, Pelagia’s “works and personal records, mostly retained at the family home at Sta. Cruz were destroyed by bombings….”brought about by the Second World War” (36). Despite the loss of her works, Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin’s contribution to the visual arts, particularly for women in the visual arts of the nineteenth century, is significant. She demonstrated that, given time and space, women could excel in the male-dominated fields of painting, sculpture, and even the running of a business. However, according to Capitulo, “Doña Pelagia, although a business woman herself, believed that a woman’s best profession is housekeeping. The woman, she said, will finally settle down for good with brass tacks pinned to the home.”
Excerpt from my book HOMEBOUND: 19th century Women Visual Artists in the Philippines, U.P. Press and NCCA. 2004
 Another woman artist, Carmen Zaragoza, won in the same competition. She will be discussed later.
Capitulo, Alejandro P. “Women in History: Dona Pelagia Mendoza.” Women’s Weekly Magazine. Manila. 1951.
Dayao, Rod F. & Amante Paredes. “Interesting Filipino Women: Pelagia Mendoza.” The Manila Chronicle. Manila: The Manila Chronicle, 1958.
Manuel, E. Arsenio. Dictionary of Philippine Biographies. Quezon City: Filipiniana Publications.
Pilar, Santiago Albano. PAMANA: The Jorge B. Vargas Art Collection. Quezon City: U.P. Vargas Museum and Committee on Arts and Culture, 1992.Rivera, Raissa Claire U. “Women Artists and Gender Issues in Nineteenth Century Philippines.” Woman, Take back History and…Review of Women’s Studies. 8:2. Quezon City: U.P. Center for Women’s Studies, July-December 1998.
Santiago, Luciano P.R. “Philippine Academic Art: The Second Phase (1845-98).” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. 17. Cebu: University of San Carlos, March 1989.
Torres, Emmanuel. Kayamanan: 77 Paintings from the Central Bank Collection. Manila: Central Bank of the Philippines, 1981.
Zaide, Gregorio. Great Filipinos in History: An Epic of Filipino Greatness in War and Peace. Manila: Verde Bookstore, 1970.
Zaragoza, Jose. “La Srta. Pelagia Mendoza.”La Ilustracion Filipina. October 1892.