Le Pho: A New Eden

In 1970, art critic Waldemar George described the decadent work of French Vietnamese painter Le Pho as the “fusion of two mentalities, two worlds, and two continents.” This style, a synthesis of East and West, is evident in his depiction of aristocratic Vietnamese women painted with inks on silk, executed in the Western style of painting. Such a style was revolutionary at the time and a result of his education at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi under the mentorship of the school’s founder, Victor Tardieu. Although the school taught traditional Western painting and drawing techniques, Tardieu encouraged his students to return to their heritage and become “pure” Vietnamese artists.

After Le Pho graduated in 1930, he continued his studies in Paris for a year before he returned to Hanoi to teach at his alma mater. However, by the mid-1930s he was already becoming a fixture on the Parisian art scene, first exhibiting at the Salon of La Société des Artistes Français in 1933. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s he continued to exhibit at the Salons, including those of the Société des Artistes Français, Société des Artistes Indépendants, and the Salon des Tuileries. In 1944, he was elected to the Société du Salon d’Automne.

In 1940, Le Pho moved to Nice, where he encountered Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, two French artists who would come to have a profound effect on Le Pho’s career. During this period, Le Pho’s style becomes more impressionistic while maintaining his traditional subject matter, as evidenced by his soft pastel palette, the depiction of light in his paintings, and the presence of Vietnamese figures. Waldemar George notes how Le Pho “achieved a harmonious synthesis between Chinese painting and Impressionism, or rather Post-Impressionism.”

American art dealer Wally Findlay discovered Le Pho in Paris and in 1964 the pair entered an exclusive partnership, marking the start of the Findlay Period. During this period, Le Pho’s work becomes even more vibrant and oil on canvas becomes his preferred medium, yet he continues to paint Vietnamese women and children in verdant gardens, on terraces, as well as rich flower bouquets. Indeed, Le Pho’s admiration for the images of his youth and homeland demonstrated his talents, as well as his identity. As School of the Art Institute of Chicago scholar Nora Taylor states, “Many of his paintings emit a sentiment of nostalgia for the lush vegetation and colorful landscapes of his native country. These portraits of the Vietnam of his youth are also remembered in Vietnamese art history as the strongest examples of colonial era painting…” During the Findlay Period, Le Pho’s reputation grew globally and he enjoyed great financial success. It was a golden period for the artist. He enjoyed generous patronage, while living happily in his newly adopted country, but always remaining loyal to his beloved Vietnam.