Lot 1056
  • 1056

Mai Trung Thu

300,000 - 400,000 HKD
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  • Mai Trung Thu
  • Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Lilies)
  • Signed, dated 1943 and stamped with the seal of the artist
  • Ink and pigment on silk


This work is in good overall condition as viewed. There are some runs to the silk along with a few minor areas of restoration, but the runs to the silk are consistent with the age of the work. Framed, under Plexiglas.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Art in Indochina at the start of the 19th century was largely a byproduct of the French colonialists, and their foreign presence in the country. They brought with them their European art education and modes of painting styles, and this all had a direct impact on the burgeoning maturity of what would soon be qualified as Vietnamese modern art. Mai Trung Thu was part of the first wave of Vietnamese artists in the 1930s that succinctly merged Western aesthetics with their own personal upbringing, creating works that were inherently Vietnamese in content, but had a distinct European flare that was brand new to the country’s modern artworks from that era.

The present work entitled Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) perfectly exemplifies Mai Trung Thu’s creative philosophy that was the foundation of his oeuvre and what the artist remained faithful to throughout his lifetime. Akin with folk art inspired by nostalgia and images of yesteryear, the artist’s body of works was a collection of scenes from the past that expressed an innocence that was no longer prevalent in Vietnam at that time, with the pre-colonialist days usurped by Western influences.

The painting provides a window into another era that remained a fixture in Mai Trung Thu’s imagination, and inspired the direction of his paintings. Aristocratic women were the artist’s muses, and much of his oeuvre featured them in a variety of archetypal roles. Respectful of their refined natures and female presence, the women who resided in Mai Trung Thu’s paintings represented the artist’s ideal of womanhood: beauty, grace, and sincerity.

Many of his paintings served as vignettes of Vietnam’s upper class and their daily routines and social interactions. Mai Trung Thu was known for having only two or three figures in the narratives, detail given to the colors, subject’s perspective and activity, rather than to the individuals who inhabited the scene at hand. However, in this light the present painting stands out from the rest of his works, for it is a scene with many people engaging on a personal connection. Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) captures the intimate familiarity amongst friends, while emphasizing the artist’s keen eye for authenticity and human interactions. The size of the painting is also rare within his oeuvre, for many of Mai Trung Thu’s works were small enough to carry easily. As if the artworks were personal gifts given to family and acquaintances, tokens of friendship presented immediately to the receiver. Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) expansive composition reveals a narrative where many things are taking place. The artist has created a visual story that engages the audience with the painting’s quietude and serenity.

The elegance of the women and the delicate act of picking flowers are enhanced by the defining presence of the silk medium upon which the scene is painted. The artist was very skillful at creating works with ink and gouache on silk, for the sheerness of the fabric gifts the figures with an ethereal glow that highlights their otherworldliness from another place and time. The decision to paint on silk is reflective of Mai Trung Thu’s heritage, for the Chinese brought silk painting to Southeast Asia, and it soon became ingrained in the Vietnamese artistic identity.

Silk painting is unique to Vietnam in Southeast Asia, with only China and Japan sharing these mediums in their art history. Mai Trung Thu was highly respected as a pioneer artist with painting on silk. Much of his Western art education was due to Victor Tardieu, the French artist who was the recipient of the Prix d’Indochine in 1920, and awarded the opportunity to paint a mural at the Université Indochinoise in Hanoi. The European painter was enamored with the tropical landscape, and decided to stay permanently. In 1925, he established the country’s first art school called the Ecole de Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, where he also resided as the institution’s director. It was the school’s goal to transform Vietnamese artisans into professional artists.

During the 1930s, the country was experiencing a nationalistic debate about the role of the artist, with key emphasis placed on the Vietnamese national identity amidst French rule. These roles were broken down as romanticizing colonialism and embracing socialist realism. The artists who opposed Communism and socialist rule traveled south or migrated to France. Mai Trung Thu was the latter, arriving to Paris in 1937 (coincidently the same year that Tardieu passed away), and lived there for the remainder of his life. During his time abroad, he gained access to foreign critics, and welcomed by the French public for the charming blend of Eastern and Western motifs in the paintings. Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) shares insight into a world that is inherently Vietnamese. However, the composition and positioning of the figures is reminiscent of classical Western paintings, and thereby relatable to a foreign audience. In this regard, Mai Trung Thu was one of the first Vietnamese artists whose paintings had a cross-market appeal, while remaining loyal to his Asian heritage.

Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) is as much part of Vietnam’s art history, as it is a part of Mai Trung Thu’s visual biography. The scene enfolding can be perceived through rose colored glasses, these Asian muses entertaining themselves with the natural flora and fauna, memory keepers of the past, forever frozen in this particular time. The artist’s oeuvre is a collection of such moments, and therefore Cueillette de Nénuphars (Picking Waterlilies) maybe seen as a love letter to a forgotten era as remembered by the artist.