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The core of the Vietnamese art market is anchored on three artists: Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho, and Mai Trung Thu.  The trio began their careers on a similar path, starting their studies at the École des Beaux-Art l’Indochine in Hanoi and later moving to Paris to continue their education.  Their stay in Paris endowed their works with an air of western Post-Impressionism, but the artists never relinquished the stunning subjects of their home country. 

Mai Trung Thu, born November 10, 1906 and the most traditional of the three artists, is well-known for his renderings of Vietnamese women and children in conventional settings and activities. Coupe de fruits, 1961, which sold in Shapiro Auctions’ May 2019 sale for $81,250, is a sensitive double portrait characteristic of Mai Thu.  In it, two young children sit cross-legged, one gently touching the other’s shoulder, eating grapes and peaches laid on a low table.  The sitters’ serene expressions are complemented by a sparse, neutral background and strong primary colors in the clothing and table setting. The only extravagance is the traditional Vietnamese silk square suspended off the table’s edge, which subtly refers to the luxurious silk on which the painting itself is made.  

Vu Cao Dam, born January 8, 1908, while also keeping in line with depicting traditional Vietnamese subjects (again primarily women), inflected a far more European style on his paintings. Studying in Vietnam’s capital for the first part of his life, at 23 years old he was awarded a scholarship to study in France.  There, he met and worked with the Post-Impressionist master Marc Chagall, who greatly impacted the young master’s work.  Chagall’s influence is evident in the 1973 work Composition, where Vu Cao Dam reinterprets the East Asian trope of a young, loving couple into one that incorporates modern Western aesthetics: brisk and fluid brushwork, sensuous contrasting colors, and an oneiric, suspended quality. This work was sold in Shapiro Auctions’ January 2019 sale for a staggering $59,375.

Similarly, Le Pho, born on August 2, 1907 in Hanoi, Vietnam, began studying in Paris in 1932 under the renowned Victor François Tardieu.  Unlike his contemporary Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho returned to his home country after completing his education to share what he had learned with a new generation of pupils.  However, he did eventually return to France, where he continued to combine the styles of western Post-Impressionism with traditional Chinese and Vietnamese silk painting. In lot 86 from Shapiro Auctions’ July 2020 auction, Le Pho presents in Cueilleur de Fleurs (Gathering Flowers) two Vietnamese ladies in an orchard. With the warm palette and verdant colors, what should be a very quotidian scene becomes one that entices all the senses. The serene Post-Impressionist style combined with the traditional Vietnamese subject matter is a prime example of his quintessential style. 

While strong auction performances by Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho and Mai Thu come as no surprise, the Vietnamese market is not limited by these three names, as nascent stars like Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) and Nguyen Trung (born 1940) continue to reach new records. 

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