A rtistry, whether conveyed through a remarkable painting or a distinguished piece of jewellery at auction, is celebrated for its delightful ability to capture history and meaning in beautiful ways. The work becomes a microcosm of cultural influence, historical footnotes and of course, the artist’s own lived experience, all bound within one medium. The Vietnamese modern artist Mai Trung Thu and his celebrated silk paintings exemplify these aspects resplendently.
One of Mai Trung Thu’s rarest and most significant paintings, Coquetterie brings about the qualities of artistry most clearly, subtly integrating his perspective of art, culture, and the world in ways made evident through artistic style, motif and palette. The work is a multilayered homage to Mai Trung Thu’s Vietnam containing references to 16th-century French art, the Italian Renaissance, and fine jewellery. These embedded clues reward a close reading of this painting.
Produced in 1966, Mai Trung Thu’s work during the mid-1960s was the inflection point for his use of chromatism and what would become the most notable feature of his celebrated oeuvre: bold colours depicting scenes of idyllic home and family life in his beloved Vietnam.
The King’s Expectant Mistress
Dressed in vibrantly coloured ao dais (traditional Vietnamese long-sleeved tunics) and sitting beneath a rich red panel and blue curtain, the two women in Mai Trung Thu’s Coquetterie appear to be admiring their necklaces, their posture and composition heavily inspired by the Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrés and her sister Duchess de Villars, an anonymous French painting by the Fontainebleau School produced in 1594. The Mannerist painting style produced for the French court in the 16th century explored depth and perspective, and Mai Thu similarly employed the trompe-l'oeil technique in the painting, placing the women beneath the panel and curtain with the shadows of the curtain to create a layer of dimensionality to the backdrop, and increased focus on the women in the foreground.
Mai Trung Thu’s artistic decision to reinvent a French painting, one he may have seen at the Louvre during his time in Paris, could be taken as a straightforward homage. It would not be surprising given his exposure to Western painting techniques and culture from his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in Hanoi, and his relocation to France later in 1937. But beyond this simple explanation, even more charming and curious details emerge.
The Marriage of the Virgin
Looking closely in Mai Trung Thu’s work, the viewer may notice that the woman on the left is cradling her gold chain and pendant in her hand, admiring it while she lifts her companion’s jadeite necklace. The depicted gold pendant is highly inspired by another real-life necklace, Sposalizio della Vergine, created by Germano Alfonsi, the late Italian goldsmith and sculptor. Alfonsi’s pendant is in turn an homage to Renaissance artist Raphael's painting The Marriage of the Virgin. The Alfonsi original and Mai Trung Thu’s pendant both emulate the roundheaded panel of the Raphael masterpiece with Mai Trung Thu’s pendant mirroring the exaggerated postures of the wedding attendees in Raphael’s painting.
In multiple works we witness the far-reaching influence of the Renaissance period; these symbols hint at a larger theme of love and affinity in all its forms, be it platonic, marital or extramarital.
The Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrés and her sister Duchess de Villars, the original Fontainebleau School work, depicts two nude women – one presumed to be Gabrielle d’Estrées, the favoured mistress of King Henry IV of France, and the other, her sister the Duchess de Villars. They are seated together in a silk-lined bathtub, which inevitably conjures up modern interpretations of sapphic love due to the women’s nudity and ambiguous facial expressions. Many art historians believe that the painting alludes to the announcement of Gabrielle’s pregnancy and the significance of the king’s mistress bearing him an illegitimate son. The duchess pinching her sister’s nipple signifies Gabrielle’s fertility, while the mistress holds the king’s coronation ring, a token for his true love – for a woman who is not the queen. In 1594, the same year the painting was created, Gabrielle did indeed give birth to their first son, César, the Duke of Vendôme. This occurred at a time when King Henry IV’s own loveless marriage with Queen Margaret was rife with tension and scandal.
Mai Trung Thu | Coquetterie (Coquetry)
Jewellery: Symbols of Love and Nobility in Vietnam
Accessory class markers such as the droplet earrings that adorn Gabrielle and her sister in the original are replaced with the gold pendant and chain and jadeite necklace in Mai Thu’s work, underscoring the artist’s keen ability to merge Western painting techniques with his personal perspectives. Painted in 1966 as the war in Vietnam waged on, Coquetterie is a departure from the stereotypical depictions of the Vietnamese people during tremendously tenuous times: a nearly tangible sense of calmness is laden within the room and amongst the two stately women.
Simple yet clearly precious, the jadeite necklace resembles the 108 Jadeite Bead, Ruby and Diamond Necklace. Its simplicity is suggestive of mala or prayer beads, commonly worn for protection, healing and luck. Mai Thu’s inclusion of “green gold” also provides a subtle yet distinct contrast to the gold pendant and a characteristically East Asian element to this vignette. The prestige of jadeite carries an abundance of meaning, both in art and spirituality and here, is fitting in considering Mai Thu’s propensity to depict his subjects, most often women and children, in a dignified and refined manner as part of a greater ongoing homage to his home country. Like the gold pendant, the precious material denotes status and wealth and is a conscientious detail in this portrayal of Vietnamese nobility.
In addition to its healing and longevity properties, jadeite’s reputed power to protect the wearer, opening their heart to love, is a notion that brings this intimate interaction between the women to the foreground. Where Mai Trung Thu observed more obvious displays of sensuality and intimacy in the work of his European contemporaries, he encapsulates these emotions with a quiet tenderness and ease that became the most definitive hallmarks of his highly lauded works.