LE PHO (Vietnamese, 1907-2001)
LE PHO (Vietnamese, 1907-2001)

Portrait of the Artist Le Thi Luu

LE PHO (Vietnamese, 1907-2001)
Portrait of the Artist Le Thi Luu
signed and dated 'LE-PHO 1935' (lower right)
oil on canvas
145 x 76 cm. (57 1/8 x 29 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1935
Gift of the artist to the sitter in 1935
Thence by descent to the present owner, Ngo Manh Duc, son of Le Thi Luu


Recently rediscovered, Portrait of the Artist Le Thi Luu by Le Pho is an important and exceptional work for a number of reasons. The early large sized oil on canvas works of Le Pho are extremely rare. Documented in various monographs and catalogues are only a handful - L'ge heureux (1930), illustrated in Trois coles d'art de l'Indochine and in J.F Hubert and C. Noppe's Art of Vietnam; La femme du Mandarin (1931), in a private collection, Europe, acquired in a Parisian auction in 1996; and finally the large painting of a courtyard of a Vietnamese mansion (1929) collected by La Maison de l'Asie du Sud-Est, Cit internationale Universitaire de Paris.

The painting is a rare portrayal of another artist, the famous female artist Le Thi Luu (1911-1988), who also played the part of muse to her fellow artists. A graduate from the Indochina Fine Art School of Hanoi in 1932, and a talented painter, she was both friend and muse to the first generation Vietnamese 20th century modern painters - Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Vu Cao Dam, To Ngoc Van, Tran Quang Tran, Nguyen Cat Tuong, Pham Hau, Nguyen Gia Tri and others.

As seen in the other rare examples of Le Pho's oil paintings, Portrait of the Artist Le Thi Luu is exceptionally well composed, with clean, distinct line and the soft tones that belie the geometrical treatment of pictorial space.

Even if the painting aspires to make no deep manifestos, it remains one of the most pertinent illustrations of Le Pho's time: the beautiful artist is dressed in a ao dai created by Nguyen Cat Tuong (Lemur), her classmate a year her junior. But if the sitter's ao dai is closed at the top, her footwear and her hat remain in a classical Tonkinoise style. An ancestor portrait is hanging on the wall above a sofa on which the model is seated quietly and elegantly while the plant on the left of the painting alludes to the power of time.

The painting recalls and crystallizes questions that were current at the time of its execution: in 1936, Vietnam was in the throes of reflection and was questioning the political, economic and social realities of her era as well as her views on these issues. She was faced with the dilemma between modernisation and tradition, renewal or decline, nationalism or universality, passivity or activism, individualism or conformity - all polarities of the eastern and western tropes. In France, the Front Populaire became the leading party in 1936 and the political message turned to socialism: the colonial power proposed a new discourse in which social dialogue became the necessary paradigm.

In these buoyant times, the artist pins down a moment where the model's grace and the talent of the artist come together to bring up the real and the essential questions of the times. The following year, Victor Tardieu, the founder of the Indochina Fine Art School of Hanoi passed away and Le Pho moved to Paris where he continued to work. As Phan Chau Trinh (1872-1926), the great Vietnamese nationalist leader, inscribed in his poem The Candle:

"But the door ajar lets the breeze filter in In the night that draws to a close, to whom can one entrust one's tears?"

Written by Jean-Francois Hubert, Senior Consultant, Vietnamese Art, Christie's