The painting had been given to Rév with an inscription on the backing of the work dated 24th of March 1959, in Hanoi, Vietnam. The work is painted almost like a photograph, a snapshot of a busy day at the padi field, a befitting gift to Rév, who also enjoyed photographing such scenes.
Nguyen Phan Chanh was born in the Tien Bat province of Ha Tinh (Nghệ Tĩnh) and raised in a family of Confucian scholars. At a young age, he studied calligraphy from his father and was the only candidate accepted from Central Vietnam to train at the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine under the tutelage of its founder, French artist Victor Tardieu. Unlike his younger peers such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu and Vu Cao Dam, who all explored a myriad of mediums of painting, Phan Chanh remained loyal to developing a prominent aesthetic and mastery of silk painting.
Rice Planters displays a more vibrant palette with lively greens and blues compared to his earlier works that embody a mostly muted, sepia-toned color scheme. The gradation in the dark greens creates depth and movement within the painting, defining the cluster of thick vegetation in the background. Phan Chanh treats the padi field in an exquisite manner, depicting the rice seedlings in a bright jade green, akin to tiny gemstones glimmering softly in the sunlight. He has an extraordinary ability to capture the color and essence of Vietnam, from the earthy browns and reds of their traditional attire, to the earthenware found in the households of ordinary Vietnamese people. The warm, picturesque colors of the painting create a peaceful and serene atmosphere, transporting its audience to the balmy and lush Vietnamese countryside.
The painting captures a moment of calm amidst a busy day at the padi field. Phan Chanh’s immaculate brushwork elegantly captures the four women hard at work in the field. The woman on the far right stands most prominently in the foreground and is rendered in striking detail, with poise and dignity, as she grasps the rice seedlings in both of her hands. She is gazing directly at the viewer, suggesting that she had been acknowledging the artist’s scrutiny – a rare stance and unusual occurrence for one of Phan Chanh’s works. The artist delineates the woman’s features delicately and paints her hair with an ethereal silkiness, capturing the loose strands that fall gently against her forehead. Her clothes are meticulously painted, demonstrating his skill and ability to capture fabric. From the tight knot of her headscarf to the soft folds of her rolled-up pants, Phan Chanh’s technical mastery of silk painting is apparent, and Rice Planters is an excellent example of the artist displaying his confidence with handling fluidity and the unforgiving nature of ink and gouache.
In his oeuvre, Phan Chanh glorified the circadian life and social realities of ordinary Vietnamese folk. Farmers such as the girls depicted play an integral role in the social fabric of the country, as they are responsible for growing the food that will feed a nation. He portrays with such acuity elements as diverse as the glass-like effect of the water in the padi field and the minutiae of the rice seedlings, rendering the fuzzy, almost feathery-like textures of the roots with intricate brushstrokes.
Rice Planters demonstrates Phan Chanh’s technical abilities in painting as well as his keen understanding of the properties of light and water. The effects of reflection and refraction are skillfully portrayed, from the odd bends and proportions of the partially submerged hands and feet of the women, to the faint reflections suspended on the surface of the water. Phan Chanh renders the water like a translucent weightless mist that gently floods the picture, paying particular attention to its murkiness as the women plant the seedlings into the ground. In other areas, the water is tinged with a green hue, to reflect the vegetation residing in the background. Phan Chanh uses the stillness of the water to build a connection between the foreground and the background, allowing the gaze of the viewer to naturally wander to the horizon and imagine the vastness beyond the padi field.
Fresh to the market and with an exceptional provenance, Rice Planters is a triumphant work that celebrates Nguyen Phan Chanh as one of the most important figures in modern Vietnamese art history.
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