This multi-layered composition is an indulgence to the eye, tracing varying natural elements and figures across a picture plane that recedes deeply into the distance. The painstakingly executed backdrop frames the work’s hallowed focal point: the mother and child, a quintessential subject of the artist.
Le Pho was born in 1907 to the Viceroy of Tonkin during the reign of Emperor Ham Nghi. Growing up in a family of notable Mandarins, the fledgling artist was privileged to receive highbrow tutelage under the prominent Victor Tardieu, a French painter who founded the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi in 1925. Tardieu was responsible for initiating the formation of a new creative identity emerging from Vietnam, encouraging young artists to break away from the more decorative confines of export ware, which was ubiquitously produced at the time.
Le Pho quickly found himself entrenched in this new canon of modern art, which developed into an alluring synthesis of Vietnamese and French artistic styles. In 1932, he was granted a scholarship to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then later returned to Hanoi to teach at the École des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine. However, Le Pho’s romanticized renderings of Vietnamese life were not concomitant to the Communist archetypes prevailing in Vietnam at the time. Much like artists Mai Trung Thu, Vu Cao Dam and Le Thị Luu, Le Pho decided to make a career for himself in Paris, where he would live until the end of his life.
As evident in the present lot, Le Pho was inspired by idealized themes with pleasant connotations. Similar to French Impressionist paintings, his opus conjured sentimentalized vignettes of private interactions set in domestic interiors and lush gardens. Family Life is a visually appealing work, depicting an intimate moment during a leisurely day.
Situated in the foreground of the work and dominating the span of the picture plane is a classic image of a mother and child. While an ingenuous toddler rests his head on his mother’s lap, clutching on to her knee, she compliantly rests her palms on his hands and head. She tilts her head downward, a nurturing gesture as she embraces her cherished son, forming a harmonious oval configuration that signifies the reciprocal nature of the maternal bond.
Her countenance bears a soft expression, with downcast eyes attentive to the boy’s needs. She provides a sense of security to her child, who blushes vulnerably. A sense of stillness pervades the image of the pair, evoking an accordant kinship that complements the overarching theme of motherhood. Le Pho’s female subjects were anonymous, for they were flawless paradigms of Vietnamese beauty. The woman is demure and sensual, with boneless, slender limbs. Seated comfortably, she is garbed in translucent fabrics that gracefully drape her elongated body, providing her with an ephemeral character.
However, it is the sumptuous locale painted behind the mother and child that situates Family Life on a lofty level in Le Pho’s opus. Upon viewing this meticulously rendered work, it is evident that Le Pho placed a strong emphasis on the multifarious backdrop, painting it with a level of density rarely seen in his figurative works. Le Pho manages to conjure a seemingly never-ending space, abundant with lush foliage, sprawling grasslands and water bodies.
The image extends from a tiled interior space that houses the foreground of the work, to a sun-kissed garden that recedes into the distance. The structure of the composition is strengthened with the presence of a ledge and pillar, which mimics the parallel L-shaped arrangement of the mother and child in the forefront and serves to separate the indoor and outdoor areas.
The picture plane is brimming with tortuous details and populated with figures doing curious activities. On the left side of the composition, a girl in the garden overlooks the potted plants over the ledge. Simultaneously, another woman on the right side of the work sits on the platform in repose, gazing at the sinuous landscape before her. A vigilant black cat lurks below her, following a series of flower pots carefully arranged in sequence. In the orchard, a figure wearing a conical hat known as nón lá carries two baskets as he crosses the grasslands, while others balance baskets on their heads with poise. The theme of parental affection extends into the backdrop, where a woman is shown flanked by two playful children. Her translucent scarf dances with the gusts of wind, providing with an angelic quality.
Le Pho places a great amount of effort to infuse a sense of perspective to the painting, including layers of physical dimensions occupied with figures. Deep into the distance, across the stream, stands a white architectural structure with a majestic entrance, suggesting the existence of even deeper spaces. This remarkably detailed background sets a stage for the mother and child, ensconcing them with a lively ambience. The soft palette employed permeates the work with an aura of serenity and tenderness.
This rare, intricate silk painting belongs to the zenith of Le Pho’s illustrious career. The maestro began working with ink on silk early on, along with his fellow contemporaries Nguyen Phan Chanh and Mai Trung Thu. Upon observing Family Life, it is patent that Le Pho brought this innovative technique to a level of consummate mastery. Depicting the unperturbed, circadian life of the elite, the artist shows the community convivially coexisting with their native flora and fauna. The sanctified image of a mother and child stands as a universally understood emblem of beauty, highlighting familial bliss that rejoices the foundations of human life. In Family Life, Le Pho conveys an unadulterated picture of Vietnam, opening a window into the halcyon days over a decade before the Vietnam War, ultimately offering the viewer a nostalgic glimpse into an idyllic existence.
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