Le Pho was born in Hanoi, Vietnam on 2 August 1907, the son of the Viceroy of Tonkin. It was this early background of privilege that later influenced his cosmopolitan artistic vision. Educated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine under the tutelage of founding director Victor Tardieu, and later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, his formative training equipped him to incorporate the best of Western technical artistry, while giving voice to Vietnamese cultural identity and his own personal memories of them. In the end, he combined both the foreign with the familiar for his French and Vietnamese audiences, defining a new aesthetic that marked him as one of the most illustrious Vietnamese artists of his era. Le Pho spent the rest of his life in France, but remained endlessly inspired by his long-distant motherland, to which art served as his strongest tangible connection. As such, he was continually driven to represent the lives and heritage of his countrymen, all with a delicate, almost reverent eye. La Famille is a significant example of Le Pho’s synthesis, bringing an impressionist’s view to bear on these vignettes of everyday Vietnamese life. The painting offers the viewer a glimpse into a particularly personal interaction, as if the mother and her children are wholly self-contained in their ease with each other, and any other presence becomes an intrusion. Channeling the essential principles of Impressionism- creating scenes that were photographic, candid and momentary- Le Pho therefore offers a fleeting snapshot of the family, caught only in a moment of impermanence.
Le Pho had long been preoccupied by the archetype of the mother and her child, and their symbiotic identities derived from each other. The artist drew inspiration from a deep European artistic tradition, taking on the muse of the Madonna and her child so entrenched in the works of Bouguereau and Duccio, among numerous others, but infusing the theme with a fully Vietnamese identity. But, unlike these other canonical pieces, La Famille’s candidness is far more immediate- unstructured and instinctive.
La Famille is a vivid idealization of the familial bond, but beyond that, the painting is also broadly emblematic of femininity itself. With the laundry and the children, Le Pho concretizes a mother’s profound commitment to the family she has created around herself. The figure of the mother sits at the focal center of the painting, encompassed by her three children. Her posturing is rendered deliberately and yet candidly, in that she is the only figure of stillness just as her sons lounge around her. She is ostensibly caught in the moment, but then also infinitely patient.
Strikingly, her sons exist in three distinct stages of dependency within the image, but in the end, they too only exist in relation to their mother. One of the children clings tightly to her back, his face nestled close to her own, reluctant to be separated from her. Tellingly, his gaze even mirrors and mimics her own, looking upward into the distance, just as a young child comes to take his earliest cues from his mother. Another son sprawls playfully in her lap, while his gaze is singularly fixed upon his mother’s face. In contrast, the oldest child sits apart, seemingly of, but not within, the scene of affection, sitting at the table and head resting on his book. Ultimately however, the children’s figures serve to frame their mother’s own, contributing to the overarching visual – and therefore emotional – unity of the mother and her sons within the scene, creating a poignant metaphor for kinship and maternity. La Famille is a commentary on belonging and familial identity, where each and every figure in the family occupies a distinct, unique space.
The painting enshrines a deep attention to background detail, all within the space of the private, indoor family home. From the bounty of the fruit platter on the table, to the untended basket of laundry set in the back, these quotidian, deeply mundane trappings of domestic life only grant the scene an even greater verisimilitude. The peaches, rendered in candied reds and greens evocative of the traditional still-life, immediately indicate nourishment and providing- both literally and metaphorically. On the other hand, the overflowing laundry in the background provides a whimsical, yet grounding touch, speaking to a mother’s inherent dutifulness, from the abstract duty of nurturing a child right down to the minutiae of cleaning up after them. This single item alone already conjures a wealth of implicit detail and storytelling beyond the physical and temporal frame of the painting, where perhaps the boys’ playfulness finally drives their mother to resigned distraction, or perhaps the painting shows the mother’s sense of indulgence instead.
La Famille is then an artistic depiction of Vietnamese society’s ingrained belief in the centrality of family. Confucianism elevated the family unit as the foundation of a nation, and the harmony and order of the family, idealized in Le Pho’s work, was emblematic of the health of Vietnam itself. As a result, Le Pho’s work arguably becomes both intensely personal and broadly national, in its pursuit of the ideal vision of Vietnamese life.
Traditionally, silk has always been a hallmark of refinement in Asian culture, long coveted given its rarity. Here, the thematic delicacy of the image is only heightened by its medium, where the softness of the fabric provides a visual agreement with a mother’s placidity even amidst her children’s activity. The fragility of silk lends itself well to Le Pho’s delicate brushwork, and his use of watercolours and gouaches present a softer blend of colours, allowing for more complex shades and depths to absorb into the silk and overlap. All this is seen in the garb of the mother and her children, as Le Pho foregoes homogeneity and solid colours in favour of these subtle gradations. Such a focus extends to the very floor the figures sit on, where colours are faded and restrained, yet abundant at the same time. The artist’s execution of colour in this painting is also striking for its contrasts, wherein Le Pho offsets vibrant red with earthier brown and green tones, but yet these contrasts ultimately give way to a broader coherence.
La Famille is a quintessential example of Le Pho’s mastery of silk painting, but also made even more striking for its unconventionally large size. In the end, Le Pho’s painting offers a perspective into a place that is both deeply localized- nostalgically harking back to 19th century Vietnamese life and showcasing its cultural sensibilities- but also universal in its depiction of familial love.
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