Vu’s early tutelage under Victor Tardieu at the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine in Hanoi (from 1926) had already provided a lasting foundation and precedent for his balance of Vietnamese cultural themes alongside Western artistry. However, Vu’s later migration from Vietnam to France in 1931, and his education at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris and the École de Louvre, now placed him at the focal point of Western aesthetic culture, from which he drew his formative technical inspiration.
Much of Vu’s subsequent works, including the Seated Lady, were borne out of his desire to represent the visual identity of a far-distant homeland. His aim was to create a confluence of the foreign with the familiar for both French and Vietnamese audiences. The lives and characters of his countrywomen therefore became his lifelong muses, depicting them as complex, multi-dimensional figures rather than simply objects for a gazer’s eye.
The visual focus of the painting immediately centres upon the titular seated girl, placed as she is in the foreground, and as her figure sits in relation to the mutedness of the landscape she occupies. Strikingly, in comparison with Vu’s later works in which his subjects are set amidst vibrant and more saturated Impressionistic swathes of colour. Seated Lady is distinct for its almost dusky tonality, where the dark blue of the girl’s ao dai and the peripheries of her outline virtually blend into a pastoral expanse of sky blues, greens and browns. Thematically, the girl thus appears to be entirely of nature, rather than merely present within it. Evidently, there is a harmonious unity and restraint of colour displayed here, courtesy of Vu’s deft use of the ink and ability to create nuanced gradations of colour.
Even as the lady’s figure dominates the canvas, as the sole arresting shape among a sprawling open plain, her posture remains especially reserved and unimposing, her knee drawn up towards her body and her gaze cast downward, away from the viewer. Her features are rendered in the strokes of a fine, precise brush—from lifelike wisps of hair down to the outline of her nose—imparting a faithful sense of perspective. Beyond this, the overall expression on her face seems one of untouchable calmness. All this renders a picture of a woman entirely contained within herself, in continuation of the theme of reserve, and the entire scene becomes almost intimate, as if the spectator is intruding upon a private moment. Yet, the seated figure’s very unassuming composure exerts its own subtle power, and which creates a greater sense of fascination and allure for beholders.
Seated Lady is a prime exemplar of Vu’s mastery over the medium of silk, long prized throughout antiquity for its transparency and softness. Most strikingly, this work is unconventional for it’s large size, it signifies Vu’s confidence over his craft—a process demanding precise control over the pressures and direction of his brush, and the strategic management of space, perspective and lighting. Structurally, the very medium only serves to enhance the themes and concerns of the painting, evoking exceptional delicacy and a distinctively Vietnamese flavour, in concert with its subject matter.
On a broader scale, the Seated Lady represents an important work in the storied tradition of Vietnamese silk painting, a style which fully came into its own between 1925 and 1945 after a long period of gestation. Vu’s painting contributes to and helps shape this stylistic epoch, marked by a sense of restraint and arresting charm.
Standing as Vu’s tribute to the ostentatious dignity of the Vietnamese culture and its people, the Seated Lady captures the grace of the Vietnamese woman with a generous eye, while technically blending subtle detail alongside evocative shades.
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