Juan Manuel's love and natural talent for
art started early in life when he started drawing at the age of four
years. When he was seven, he starting painting reproductions of
religious scenes from a book on Dante.
Juan Manuel completed primary schooling
in Los Santos where he distinguished himself with his drawings. He was
chosen to make all the maps for his school, the quality of which earned
him the name "el zurdito de oro" (golden lefty).
He started secondary schooling in 1930
and showed great promise in art that he was awarded a scholarship to the
Instituto Nacional in Panama City where he then -- at the age of 16
years -- was encouraged to enroll in Panama's National Academy of
Painting (today the National School of Painting -- Escuela Nacional de
Artes Plasticas) where he studied under Roberto Lewis, one of Panama's
foremost painters. (Juan Manuel was later considered one of Lewis' most
outstanding students.) After graduating from the Instituto Nacional in
1935, Juan Manuel taught in schools in rural schools in other interior
parts of the country and from 1939 continued studies at the National
Academy of Painting until 1943.
Upon winning a government scholarship to
study abroad, he chose the Chicago Institute of Art where he studied
from 1944 through 1948 and graduated with B.A. degree in Fine Arts.
While in Chicago, he exhibited his paintings at the Chicago
International House in 1945; in The School of the Art Institute in 1946
(winning honorable mention); and in the Institute of Design in 1947.
In 1953, Juan Manuel studied art (as
invited student) at the Polytechnical Institute of Mexico in Mexico City
under the muralist Siqueiros and painter Diego Rivera.
After joining the National School of
Painting (in Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of Panama City) in 1940
as assistant to the director Humberto Ivaldi, another of his mentors,
Juan Manuel was in charge of he school from 1948-1967 and named director
ad honorem of the school.
After Roberto Lewis' death in 1949, Juan
Manuel began the reorganization of the National School of Painting.
He was also professor of drawing and
painting at the University of Panama in Panama City from 1949 until his
retirement in 1978.
After Roberto Lewis died, Juan Manuel was
commissioned to continue Lewis' work of painting the official portraits
of several of Panama's presidents (the first one done in 1948 of Dr.
Daniel Chanis and the last one painted in 1987 of Max Del Valle) which
are permanently displayed in the Presidential Gallery of the Salon
Amarillo (Yellow Room) of the Presidential Palace in the colonial part
of Panama City.
In 1970, he was commissioned by the
government to retouch the paintings by Roberto Lewis on the ceiling and
in the foyer of the historic National Theater in the colonial Casco
Viejo part of
Panama City, an arduous process particularly on the ceiling.
In 1995, Juan Manuel was contracted by
then Foreign Minister Gabriel Lewis Galindo to paint 12 large paintings
depicting significant events of Panama's history. Unfortunately, Lewis
Galindo died before the project was initiated.
In addition to his teaching (including
having taught many of later well known Panamanian artists including
Guillermo Trujillo), Juan Manuel was recognized for having been one of
the first Panamanians to interest himself in the styles of international
contemporary art and also passing on the same passion to his
Juan Manuel worked in oil, tempora,
charcoal, and water color. He did not stay within the strict boundaries
of classical art, but dared to experiment with new forms of expression
bordering at times on cubism.
The gamut of his works in included: