Lê Phô (1907-2001), La famille (The Family), circa 1938-40

Lot 1027. Lê Phổ (1907-2001), La famille (The Family), signed in Vietnamese and Chinese, stamped with the seal of the artist; titled on the reverse; ink and gouache on silk laid on paper; 63 by 46 cm; 24 3/4 by 18 1/4 in.; executed circa 1938-40. Estimate 1,500,000 — 2,500,000 HKD. © Sotheby’s.

Provenance: Acquired from Galerie Romanet by the previous owner, thence by descent
Private Asian Collection

Note: This season, Sotheby’s is proud to offer an exceptional and elaborate silk painting by the Vietnamese master Lê Phổ. La Famille epitomises the astounding beauty and elegance of Le Pho’s works, which often feature romanticised illustrations of 19th century Vietnamese life. The present lot depicts a family of four comprising of a father, mother, and their two sons. In a rare move for Lê Phổ, who mostly painted women and children, the artist  includes a male subject in this composition—his stolid presence balances the playful and affectionate interactions of his wife and children. Charming and refined, this tender family portrait paints an image of domestic bliss undisturbed by worldly concerns.

Born to the Viceroy of Tonkin in 1907, Lê Phổ’s privileged early life formed the basis of inspiration for many of his later works. He was one of the first graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi, the art academy founded by the French artist Victor Tardieu. Together with fellow graduates like Mai Trung Thu and Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho defined the pioneering wave of modern  artists who helped establish a new canon of Vietnamese art. As a result of his training, Lê Phổ’s artistic style was a synthesis of French and Vietnamese approaches--a distinctive aesthetic that made him highly popular both in his home country and abroad, especially in Paris, where he lived and worked for the latter part of his life. Through exhibitions in Algiers (1941), Paris (1945), Brussels (1948), San Francisco (1962), and New York (1963), Lê Phổ garnered acclaim as one of the greatest Vietnamese artists of his time.

La Famille is a charmingly exquisite example of the Lê Phổ’s celebrated silk works. One of his early achievements as a young artist was the  perfection of silk painting as a technique. Lê Phổ favoured painting on Japanese pongee silk glued on a board, using gouache and ink to render his subjects. His light touch and finely-executed brushwork imbue his works with a subtle brilliance in texture and colour; the works’ gentle elegance embodies the new heights of sophistication and artistry Lê Phổ reached in the medium. 

Much of the beauty found in Lê Phổ’s oeuvre stems from his poetic, serene vignettes of domestic life set in lush interior spaces and gardens. La Famille offers a glimpse into the private moment shared by the family in the painting—a window into their idyllic lifestyles. The mother embraces one of her children with her left arm, tilting her face towards him as he kisses her on the cheek. The child’s seemingly spontaneous action highlights the strength of the mother-son bond; her serene countenance exudes a sense of quiet pleasure at his sweetly affectionate gesture. With her right hand, the mother grasps the piece of fabric the other mischievous child is playing with. This boy seems to have stolen the fabric from the bowl of sewing materials lying forgotten by her lap. The father looks on indulgently at his family with a countenance of peaceful contentment. The unstudied, almost casual arrangement of the family’s positions in the present work highlights the intimacy of the tableau captured by Lê Phổ.

Lê Phổ’s consummate mastery of silk painting is evident in this sublime work. He uses a subtle, diaphanous colour palette that complements the delicate nature of silk, lending the painting an ethereal feeling. Lê Phổs delicate brushstrokes, the lack of harsh lines, and the use of solid colours all recall the look of traditional Chinese ink paintings. In contrast to the understated shades of black and lilac worn by the adults, the children are garbed in hues of yellow, emerald, and vermilion, underscoring the lively energy they bring to the work. Lê Phổ also conveys the flowing elegance of their outfits by illustrating how the fabric drapes softly around their forms. The graceful harmony of the painting complements Lê Phổ’s penchant for painting idealised images of domestic life defined by kinship and familial love.

The key relationship illustrated in this beautiful work—that of the mother and children—highlights Lê Phổ’s unparalleled ability to adapt Western visual motifs to a Vietnamese context. His visits to Europe as a young artist, where he marvelled at the religious works of Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Memling, inspired him to start painting his own versions of the Madonna and child theme. At the same time, he was also strongly influenced by the subject matter and aesthetics of French Impressionism. He incorporated a lighter palette into his later works à la Matisse and Bonnard while nonetheless retaining some of the calligraphic sensibilities of traditional Chinese ink painting. Thus, Lê Phổ’s painterly style is an alluring mélange of French, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences that he amalgamated into his unique artistic vocabulary.

Besides paying visual homage to French impressionist art, La Famille also illustrates the paramount importance of the family as a social unit in Vietnam. It emphasises Confucian norms with regards to the family as the basis of harmony and order in the nation, highlighting Lê Phổ’s strong connection to traditional Vietnamese culture. The duality of French and Vietnamese cultural influences in Le Pho’s art defines his enduring appeal; the ease with which he navigates both artistic traditions is a testament to his rightly-earned position as a maestro of modern Vietnamese art.

Lê Phổ’s works give us a window into the idyllic existence of the Vietnamese elite and the rich history of Vietnam’s treasured past. Even as the country was reshaped by the forces of colonialism and communism over the course of his life, the eternal, self-contained worlds of Lê Phổs paintings remain unchanged; elegant interiors and luxuriant gardens inhabited by demure ladies and rosy-cheeked children dominate his prolific oeuvre. In that vein, La Famille is a work of timeless beauty, underscored by a rich sense of nostalgia for halcyon days.

Last records at Sotheby's: 

Le Pho, Family Life, circa 1937-1939

Lê Phổ, Family Life, circa 1937-1939. Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2 April 2017, Lot 1022, 9,100,000 HKD (1,171,005 USD) © Sotheby’s

Le Pho, Le Petit Family (The Small Family), circa 1940-1949

Lê Phổ, La Petite Famille (The Small Family), circa 1940-1949. Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 7 October 2012, Lot 269, for 740,000 HKD (95,455 USD) © Sotheby’s

Sotheby's. Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Hong Kong, 30 Sep 2017, 05:00 PM