Within his milieu, the legacy of the French artist Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971) is perhaps impossible to understate—a rare visionary who harbored a genuine admiration for Indochina. Inguimberty was the professor of decorative arts at the École and mentored generations of Vietnamese artists including Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Phan Chanh, To Ngoc Van, and Vu Cao Dam and Nguyen Gia Tri.
Possessing an extraordinary versatility, Inguimberty produced works across different artistic genres. The artist’s desire to depict the lives of the common folk of Indochina culminated in a series that captured rural vistas, lush landscapes and the people who tended to these terrains. The present lot is one of his few known nude studies executed in Vietnam that merits special attention. Indeed, Le Repos (The Repose) is an outstanding and rare example of Inguimberty’s indoor studio works showing two women, one fully clothed and another fully nude, daringly rendered in the artist’s signature style.
Prior to the establishment of French art schools in the country, there was no known tradition of using live models in Vietnamese art. Equipped with an unparalleled sensitivity, the Marseille-born Inguimberty was cautious to avoid painting exoticized “ethnographic types.” Rather, Inguimberty’s portraits of Vietnamese working people are marked by a desire to capture their dignity, joy, gentleness and universal human condition. This is also true of Le Repos, where the sitter’s charm radiates throughout the work.
While Inguimberty often worked en plein air, his numerous studio paintings attest to his ability to capture the dramatics of light even within an indoor space The subject and notion of the nude was considered a rather provocative in early 20th century Vietnam. Yet founder Victor Tardieu and Inguimberty introduced the study of nudes into the curriculum of the Ecole, as an important foundation on the anatomy of the human body. Le Repos (The Repose) not only reveals Inguimberty’s commanding artistry and acute sense for color and space, it represents the beginnings of the revolution that would occur in Vietnamese modern art. Le Repos (The Repose) stands somewhat as a refreshing departure from the typical poses of nudes, even within the Western art tradition. Furthermore, while most of Inguimberty’s paintings show nude figures standing, Le Repos (The Repose) is a focused study of women in relaxation—the nude woman lies comfortably on her back. In her state of undress, she displays a keen awareness of being observed while engaging in conversation with her companion who is dressed in a long-sleeved ao dai. As seen from a higher vantage point, the woman lies down on top of a white sheet, with legs angled nimbly towards the viewer and leaving her hand to rest on her torso. Remarkably candid, yet sensually rich, Le Repos (The Repose) presents a moment of tenderness between the two women.
In other ways, the work also demonstrates Inguimberty’s training at the l’École des Beaux-Arts de Marseille and his creative play of interior space. Other than employing linear perspective, Inguimberty composes the figures within a tight crop against a bright patterned background, thus displaying Inguimberty’s affinity for figuration and masterful use of color. Details in the painting—from the graceful floral motifs adorning the walls to the flowing teal ao dai—speak to Inguimberty’s keen eye and experimentations with light, shading and shadowing. Inguimberty’s generous use of color in Le Repos (The Repose) is remarkable for its harmony—the bold vermilion dominating the backdrop of the set is balanced out by the pale azure and earth tones of the foreground, producing a charmingly pleasing composition.
Well respected as one of Vietnam’s most important artistic pioneers, Inguimberty unquestionably left an indelible legacy on modern Vietnamese art and its unique approach to synthesizing Western and indigenous styles. The Japanese invasion of French Indochina forced the artist to leave Vietnam with his wife and two children, and resulted in the plundering of many of his works. The present painting, Le Repos (The Repose), remains an exceptional nonpareil among Inguimberty’s rare surviving masterpieces, both in terms of subject matter and genre. It stands as a one-of-a-kind work not simply in Inguimberty’s prolific oeuvre, but in the genre of nude study as well.
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