Vietnamese-French artist Mai Trung Thu, also known as Mai Thu, was among one of the most prominent artists during the French occupation of Indochina. Mai Thu embodies a generation of progressive Vietnamese artists that graduated from Hanoi’s École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine. In 1937, he went to France to take part in an exhibition before he ended up settling in Paris, where he lived for the majority of his life. Over the course of his education, Mai Thu developed a refined style of painting on silk, whereby he would systematically organize patches of bold colors to differentiate highlight from shadow. Despite having spent most of his life in France, Mai Thu always maintained a sense of patriotism in his work and his paintings conveyed a deep sense of love for his motherland.
Mai Thu found delight in incorporating Vietnamese subject matter and symbolism into his art. The folk-like themes of his dainty images of women, children and idealized landscapes were often a celebration of rural Vietnam that captured a sense of innocence and nostalgia for the past. By stylistically blending aesthetic traditions from Vietnamese paintings and the ‘French Salon’ style, Mai Thu remains one of the major paragons of the ‘Ecole Franco-Vietnamese’ today and is known particularly for capturing the tender moments of everyday life with his oeuvre of classic and graceful Vietnamese figures.
In this precious silk painting completed in 1943, Mai Thu illustrates an alluring image of a demure Vietnamese woman engaging in the ritual of drinking tea. She is poised, as she twists her body to stare directly at the viewer, with one hand delicately cradling her teacup and the other, gently laying the saucer on her ao dai atop her lap. In Vietnamese culture, the act of serving tea is an old age custom that serves as an expression of gentility and warmth. Indulging in this sacred time of day is a pastime that continues to permeate every aspect of life, spanning all social classes.
Although L’heure du Thé seemingly portrays a simple theme with a single motif, it is in fact a rare piece from Mai Thu’s oeuvre as it contains a more complex background composition than usual. Above the traditional lacquer furniture in the backdrop hangs a figurative painting on the wall. The multiple women depicted in the framed painting, each also dressed in an ao dai, deliberately mirrors the protagonist of Mai Thu’s primary painting. Serving as a picture within a picture, the inclusion of this painting is a conscious decision by the artist to question the semantics of art itself. By including only a portion of the artwork, Mai Thu imbues an element of drama to the work, and coupled with the subject’s direct gaze, suggests that there is far more to the narrative than meets the eye.
Distinguished for his precise brushwork, Mai Thu often employs fine outlines to delineate the soft curves of his stylized figures, which, akin to French post-Impressionists such as Matisse, allow the faces of the female subjects to take on a seemingly volumetric appearance. To paint on silk, some artists choose to dilute their pigments with tea to produce a translucent quality to the ink. The muted color palette coupled with monochromatic tones presents a dream-like quality to the painting, enunciating a calm atmosphere that allows the audiences to further admire the woman in her delicate moment.
But, perhaps, most notably is the sociopolitical narrative that comes with wearing an ao dai during the 1940s. Although the ao dai’s history can be traced back to the eighteenth century and was used by painters and sculptors to depict notable, historical women, the dress itself was politicized and never truly reached mainstream popularity. By this, we might conclude that the subject’s calm and confident manner is a steady affirmation to her legacy and duty as a Vietnamese woman. Indeed, the works in Mai Thu’s opus can be said to be emblematic of integrity and patriotism, portraying a poetic vision of an era where women and children were the touchstones of happiness.
Mai Trung Thu was indeed an artist who often depicted the European ideals of a woman and placed her in an inherently Vietnamese context. It was this deep joy in portraying and nurturing a vivid sense of cultural identity that helped propel him into the development of Vietnamese modern art, considering especially his innate ability to marry both French and Vietnamese influences. The present lot, a meticulous composition painted at a larger size than most the other silk works in his oeuvre, is truly a magnum opus from the artist’s body of works.