Manansala spent his childhood in Intramuros. He was less than a year old when his family moved to the place. At the age of 11, he started to earn his keep by working as bootblack, newsboys, and caddy. In 1925, he entered the preparatory school of Ramon Peralta, where he learned to draw. A year later, he enrolled at the Manila South High School, but dropped out after a quarrel with a teacher.
Not wanting to disappoint his father who valued education so much, he decided to take courses at the School of Fine arts of the University of the Philippines. At that time, it was not necessary for a student to have finished high school in order to enroll in the fine arts. Among his teachers were such famous artists as Fernando and Pablo Amorsolo, Ireneo Miranda, Fabian de la Rosa, Vicente Rivera y Mir, Ramon Peralta, Teodoro Buenaventura, and Toribio Herrera. He was only 19 when he graduated, the youngest among the batch of 1930.
Shortly after his graduation, he ran away from home after his father reprimanded him. He worked as a billboard painter and laborer in the Ipo dam construction.
In 1931, the Manila Advertising Company employed him. He resigned a year later to join the staff of the Philippines Herald as an illustrator. He stayed on this job until 1934, when he signed up with a British ship, the Silver Palm, as a mess boy. Upon his return to Manila in 1935, he rejoined Herald, doing the illustrations for the creative works of such writers as Nick Joaquin and Joe Rodas.
Manansala married Hermenigilda Diaz in 1937. Their marriage which was solemnized at
the Binondo Church, was blessed with only one child, whom they named Emmanuel. The
couple started out in a rented one-room apartment on Antonio Rivera Street. Aside from the Herald, Manansala also worked for Photo News as chief layout artist. He started to gain recognition as a painter in 1940 when his “Pounding Rice” won the grand prize at the national exhibition in the University of Santo Tomas.
When war broke out in 1942, he and his family fled to Cavite. After two months, they
moved to Masantol, Pampanga. There, he supported his family by fishing and doing portraits in exchange for four gantas of rice or eight gantas of palay. It was during the war that his early sketchbooks and award-winning student paintings were burned in Intramuros.
When peace was restored, the family returned to Manila. Manansala earned a living by
doing postcard-size pencil portraits of American soldiers. In 1947, he worked as an illustrator for Liwayway and as a layout artist for Saturday Evening News magazines. After a couple of years, he was with the Ramon Publication and Evening News as staff artist.
Manansala had always dreamed of studying abroad to perfect his craft. His dream was
realized in 1949 when he was granted a UNESCO art fellowship to Canada. At the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada, he was adjudged one of the five best artists. Another grant, courtesy of the French government, enabled him to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He studied stained glass techniques at Greenland Studio in New York City on a specialist grant from the State Department of the United States.
Manansala taught at UST from 1951 to 1958. In 1957, he started working on the “Way of the Cross” murals at the UP Chapel of Holy Sacrifice. The other murals he painted can be found at the Philippine Heart Center for Asia, UP Arts and Science lobby, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Merchants Bank, United Coconut Planters bank, and the national Press Club. On his own, he went to Los Angeles in 1967 and studied at the Otis Art Institute. In 1973, he was in Zurich on a German grant.
Manansala joined prestigious local and international exhibitions where his works won
awards and prizes. His artistic excellence was given due recognition while he was alive. Among the numerous awards he received were the UP Outstanding Alumni Award, 1957; Republic Cultural Heritage Award, 1963, and the Araw ng Maynila Patnubay ng Kalinangan Award, 1970.
On August 27, 1981, shortly after his death, the government conferred on him the National Artist Award for Visual Arts.
Manansala died five days earlier, on August 22, 1981, of uremia, leaving behind his wife and their son. At the national conferment ceremonies at the CCP, President Marcos, described Manansala’s art as “uniquely Philippine” yet “as universal as the art of the early titans Luna, Hidalgo, and de la Rosa.” On January 22, 1984, on the occasion of the 74th birth anniversary of the master, his widow donated to the government their Binangonan residence, which was declared a national landmark, together with the artist’s paintings and memorabilia that it contained.
- CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Volume 4. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994.
- Duldulao, Manuel D. The Philippine Art Scene. Hong Kong: Toppan Printing Co., 1977.
- Manansala. Manila: PLC Publications, 1986.
- Quirino, Carlos. Who’s who in the Philippines. Manila: Tahanan Books, 1995.