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BIOGRAPHY - Le Pho (1907 - 2001)

The Vietnamese artist Le Pho grew up in the Hà Đông district of the Hà Tây province in the Red River delta of northern Vietnam. Today Hà Đông is one of the most populous districts in Hanoi, but it was considerably less urban when Le Pho was born there on August 2, 1907. [i] At that time, this northernmost region of Vietnam was known as Tonkin and was part of French Indochina. [ii] Le Pho’s family seems to have been economically comfortable, and his father was reportedly the “vice-roi du Tonkin”, a title that suggests he was a highly placed administrative official of the French colonial government. This may have meant that he was responsible for the daily management of the region, answering only to the Governor General in Hanoi, whose responsibilities would have included all of French Indochina.

The presence of French rulers in southeast Asia was a relatively recent phenomena in the early twentieth century. Although ancient Roman merchants had visited the southeast Asian peninsula in the first century—and Marco Polo stopped by in 1296—it was not until 1858 that the French established a significant presence in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), ostensibly to prevent the ruling Nguyen dynasty’s persecution of Catholics. [iii] Needless to say, the French military campaign was also intended to establish France as a colonial power in the region and to prevent British dominance in Asia. Nineteen years later, in 1887, France had control over all of Vietnam and Cambodia; Laos became part of French Indochina in 1893.

Although French rule in southeast Asia was not destined to be particularly durable, it did leave a distinctive mark on the culture of Vietnam. The concept of cultural hybridity that has become a central tenet of contemporary scholarship on colonialism is evident early in the tenure of the French governors of Indochina. [iv] By 1901, they had established a wood-working school, followed two years later by a bronze casting and ceramics program in 1903, in Cochinchina. Ten years later, a school of graphic arts, including drawing, engraving and lithography, opened at Gia Dinh near Saigon.

In Tonkin, the École Professionnelle de Hanoi was launched in 1902; here, students could learn cabinet-making, metalwork, ceramics, embroidery and inlay work. In general, the professors were French while the studio masters for each discipline were Vietnamese. By the 1920s, the school had become a respected institution and it was here that Le Pho obtained his first serious art education. The director of the school at that time was the Swiss sculptor Gustave Hierholtz (1877-1954), a former pupil of Auguste Rodin and a respected animalier in Paris. Not surprisingly, he expanded the range of drawing courses available at the École Professionnelle when he arrived in Vietnam. Le Pho was well prepared there for his next step as a painter when the new École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine opened its doors in 1925.

The development of the École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine evolved gradually as the French colonial culture took root in the region. One of the first connections between the artistic communities of Vietnam and France was established when a young man named Le Huy Mien left Hanoi in the 1890s to study at the École des beaux-arts in Paris. When he returned in 1895, he introduced the then unknown technique of oil painting on canvas to his fellow artists. [v]

In 1910, the creation of the Prix de l’Indochine, a monetary award given to an artist associated with the Société coloniale des Artistes français, established another means of cultural exchange between Vietnam and France. The prize was first awarded in 1914, and after a break during World War I, began again in 1920. The winner that year was Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) who, together with the painter Nguyễn Nam Sơn (1890-1973) would later become the co-founder of the École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine.

Tardieu was trained at the École des beaux-arts in Lyon from 1887-1889, and then at the École des beaux-arts in Paris in the studios of Léon Bonnat and Albert Maignan from 1890-1891. His early career seems to have included a number of mural commissions for the town halls of suburban Paris communities, such as Lilas and Montrouge; and he was a regular exhibition at the annual salon of the Société des Artistes Françaises. After winning the Prix de l’Indochine, Tardieu headed east on a train from Marseille, arriving in Saigon in February 1921. Within a few months, he had traveled north to Hanoi and settled into a new life there. Perhaps because he was the winner of the Prix de l’Indochine, he received two large mural commissions from the French colonial authorities, one for the Université Indochinoise, and the other for the Bibliothèque Centrale. [vi]

As part of his preparation for these murals, Tardieu explored the countryside surrounding Hanoi, visiting rural villages where he often sketched people going about their daily routines. He was especially fascinated by the work of woodcarvers, lacquerware designers and other artisans, recognizing them as fellow artists and designers. [vii] In collaboration with Nguyễn Nam Sơn (1890-1973), a painter who also trained in Paris, Tardieu began to outline the possibility of opening a school of fine arts in Hanoi. He consulted the office of the Governor General of Indochina and subsequently petitioned for the establishment of school where local students could study to become professional artists. The petition was approved on October 17, 1924 and the École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine opened in 1925. Both men oversaw the development of the school.

Among the students in the first class was Le Pho. Fresh from his training at the École Professionnelle, he was ready to move on to a more advanced program in traditional Western painting. The classes at the new fine arts school were based primarily on the French curriculum from Paris, but Tardieu’s appreciation of local art and culture led him to include several courses that were specific to the Vietnamese tradition: painting on silk, lacquerware design, and art history courses focused on Asian art, albeit based on Western art historical texts on the subject. During the early years when Le Pho was a student, the classes were small, which meant that each student enjoyed individual attention from Tardieu. By all accounts, he was well liked and fondly remembered by his students. [viii]

In addition to the typical studies in anatomy, composition, life drawing and art history, Tardieu regularly took his classes on field trips to paint en plein air in the countryside surrounding Hanoi. Art historian Nora Taylor describes the effect of these field trips this way.

            “In having to depict their environment and observe the make-up of the landscape and the habitat of their rural neighbors, students were compelled to view their world with a different eye....they took on the role of ‘painter’. Viewing the countryside for the sake of painting generates a set of relationships between an artist and his or her subject that the casual observer does not share. Similarly, while sketching live models, artists abandon any personal relationships with the person seated in front of them and look upon their subjects as objects of pictorial study. They alter their behavior toward the person in question to conform to a relationship based on that of artist toward his or her model rather than those of man to woman, woman to man, or friend to friend. These attitudinal adjustments were new for the students at the EBAI.” [ix]

In short, students at the École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine learned what it meant to be a painter in the Western tradition. For Le Pho, this would prove to be a methodology worth exploring further.

Le Pho’s chance to travel came in 1930-31 when Tardieu requested his assistance in setting up the French Indochina pavilion at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris. Located on the grounds of the Bois de Vincennes where many other international exhibitions had taken place, the pavilion was a replica of the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although it was ablaze with electric light at night and the interior was a entirely modern space designed for exhibitions and conferences, the Khmer temple created a dramatic impression on the eight million visitors to the fair. Le Pho’s role seems to have been overseeing the installation of the art produced by the students and faculty of the the École des beaux-arts de l’Indochine.

The reception of this modest exhibition at the Indochina pavilion received considerable attention in the local press. The Paris art critic Adolphe Tabarant was quite impressed with the work of the students in particular, writing that the they had surpassed their French professors in their art. [x] in part, this reaction resulted from the students’ synthesis of their traditional French educational curriculum with the naturalistic depiction of scenes from daily Vietnamese life.

Le Pho’s contribution was an oil painting titled L’age heureux (Happy Age) portraying five children of varying ages gathered near a river. In contrast to the title, the children seem quietly reflective, perhaps implying that childhood itself is a “happy age” rather than the specific moment captured in the painting. The organization of the figures demonstrates Le Pho’s mastery of complex figural compositions; and his understanding of linear perspective and three-dimensional space is evidenced by the receding landscape behind the children. The image, however, also incorporates large flat areas of color that are associated both with Japanese art and with late nineteenth century japonisme in France. It is impossible to determine which of these influenced Le Pho. The canvas is dated 1930 and signed in both Vietnamese characters and Roman letters, a further indication of the hybrid sources of Le Pho’s art. [xi]

After the fair closed in November 1931, Le Pho remained in Paris to study at the École des beaux-arts, undoubtedly with Tardieu’s blessing. This was followed by an extended period of traveling through Belgium and Holland before heading south to Italy where he was fascinated by the quattrocento Renaissance painters known as “les Primitifs”. This term is somewhat amorphous, but it was generally used in the 1930s to describe the work of primarily Tuscan painters such as Fra Angelico, Pietro Lorenzetti, Lorenzo Monaco, Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. [xii] The impact of these artists on Le Pho’s work was substantial. In two paintings from 1935, he blended the traditional Christian imagery of the Madonna and Child with what appears to be scenes of typical Vietnamese family life. In Mother and Child on a Balcony, he depicted a new mother snuggling with her baby, clearly engaging in an intimate moment much like those of Filippi Lippi’s Madonnas. The red railing of the balcony and the Asian faces, however, place this image in a non-Western context. Likewise, the painting titled The Family reveals a similar overlapping of art historical sources; in this canvas a mother holds her son in one arm while cradling another, slightly older boy on her lap. Were it not for the Vietnamese clothing and setting (and the lack of overt Christian symbolism), this composition might have been understood as a Western reference to the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist. These hybrid images confirm the young painter’s efforts to absorb the global influences of the art he had studied. It was part of the process of discovering his own aesthetic voice.

Le Pho returned to Hanoi in 1933 to accept a teaching position at his alma mater. He also received an official government commission for paintings at the Palace of Hué, the administrative capitol of Annam. This work occupied him for several years, but in 1937, he was asked to become the artistic director of the French Indochina section at another Exposition Internationale in Paris. This time, the theme of the fair was ‘art and technology in modern life’. As it happened, however, the colonial contributions to the fair were largely overshadowed by the increasing tension between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the rest of Europe. The Spanish Pavilion under control of the Spanish Republican government particularly spotlighted the conflict, not only in a building designed by the modernist Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert, but in the exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, a visual representation of the anguish of the small Basque town that was bombed in April 1937 by the air forces of Hitler and Mussolini. The horror of the event sent shock waves throughout Europe. Two years later, Europe would be at war.

In spite of the political upheaval—or perhaps because of it—Le Pho remained in Paris. Hanoi had become increasingly tumultuous in the 1930s as Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party fought for independence against the colonial rule of France; and in September 1940 Japan would invade Vietnam, thus opening a Pacific front in conjunction with Nazi efforts in Europe. If Le Pho’s family was indeed part of the French colonial government, it would have been a very difficult—and even dangerous—time for them.

Life in Paris was enriched for Le Pho when his former classmate Mai Trung Thu joined him there in 1937. The following year, he had his first solo exhibition in Paris, and was also asked to serve as an artistic advisor to the Embassy of Vietnam in the French capital. Le Pho was actively involved in the Vietnamese quest for independence as were several other Vietnamese intellectuals living in Paris. When Ho Chi Minh, then president of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam, arrived in Paris for a state visit in July 1946, the artist and his colleagues lobbied for accommodations appropriate to the representatives of an equal and independent nation. The French government apparently did not consider this important, but Raymond Aubrac, a member of the National Assembly, intervened and invited the Vietnamese leader to stay at his home north of Paris.

Subsequently, Le Pho attended the negotiations at Fontainebleau with the delegation from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Led by Pham Van Dong, the foreign minister of the new government in North Vietnam, the delegation maintained its position as representative of a sovereign nation. France was unwilling to accept this, and beginning in late 1946, hostilities resumed. The Indochina War lasted until 1954, when the French were finally defeated, although not before passing responsibility for the Republic of South Vietnam to the United States. [xiii]

In his personal life, Le Pho married at some point in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His artwork from this period shows a distinctive change from elongated female figures influenced by the work of Amadeo Modigliani in 1940 to more intimate and tender images of a mother and child by 1944. Throughout the 1950s, the paintings of mothers with their children gradually gave way to a variety of images of women engaged in reading or sewing or simply sitting in a garden. Art historians have noted that Le Pho’s work was influenced by Impressionism during this period, but that description fails to take account of the artist’s insistence on a solidly naturalistic portrayal of the human figure. [xiv]

In contrast, Le Pho’s paintings of the still-lifes become increasingly abstract throughout the 1950s and 1960s as his interest in brilliant color and flattened spatial perspectives becomes more and more dominant. In the 1970s and 1980s he undertakes a series of still-lifes featuring colorful bouquets silhouetted against brilliantly colored walls. Although a table is often suggested in these compositions, the intensity of the pigments and the sketchiness of the backgrounds tend to create the sensation that the bouquets are pulsating with an internal energy that seems poised to spill out beyond the canvas.

Le Pho’s career in the West began in earnest with his 1938 solo exhibition in Paris. By 1941, he and his friend (and former classmate) Mai Thu were invited to exhibit in Algeria, thus ensuring an international audience for their work quite early in their careers. Le Pho also began to exhibit annually at the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. Step by step he enlarged the geographical scope of his exhibitions, beginning with Francophone cities such as Brussels and Tangiers, and then diversifying into other markets as his reputation became better established. When he came to the attention of a US gallery in 1964, his opportunities expanded even more globally. Soon Le Pho’s paintings could be seen in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, San Francisco, Palm Beach and Buenos Aires as well as throughout Europe.

Le Pho continued painting until the end of his very long life. In 1993, at age eighty-six, he famously remarked that his soul was still connected to his native Vietnam even though he had lived in France for well over fifty years at that point. [xv] In light of this realization, he donated twenty of his paintings to what is now the National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi. He would continue to work until 2001, when he died in Paris at age ninety-four.

Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.

Selected Museums

Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris
Viet Nam National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi


[i] All of Hà Tây province was incorporated into the city of Hanoi in August 2008. It lies to the southwest of the city center, and is home to a large complex of Buddhist temples and shrines that have been pilgrimage sites for centuries.

[ii] Under the colonial rule of France, Indochina consisted of Tonkin in the north with its capital at Hanoi;  Annam in the center along the coast, with the city of Hue as its capital; and Cochinchina in the south with Saigon as its capital. To the west of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were also part of French Indochina.

[iii] Marco Polo, edited by Ernest Rhys, The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian (London and Toronto: J. M .Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1908) 102. Polo notes that the region of Tonkin was quite different from what he had heard from the Chinese. He points out that he expected to see an unsophisticated society and was surprised to discover that it was a largely Buddhist culture with a thriving spiritual tradition. This book can also be read online at: https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Travels_of_Marco_Polo/VovVAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

[iv] Colonialism and its role in global cultural development has been the subject of intense scholarship in recent decades. Edward’s Said’s book Orientalism (London: Penguin Books, 1995) is the seminal text on the subject. See also Edward Said, The Edward Said Reader (London Granta, 2012), a posthumous collection of essays and articles covering a broader range of topics.

[v] Nadine André-Pallois and Corinne de Ménonville, Paris-Hanoi-Saigon, l’aventure de l’art moderne au Viet  Nam (Paris: Pavillon des Arts, 1998), 26. Exhibition catalogue.

[vi] Nora Taylor, “Orientalism/Occidentalism: The Founding of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine and the Politics of Painting in Colonial Viet Nam, 1925-1945”, Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1977): 4.

[vii] Ibid. Taylor cites an unpublished document about the founding of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in the archives of the Viện Nghiên Cứu Lich Sừ Mỹ Thuật (Institute of Art for Historical Research) in Hanoi in note 7.

[viii] Ibid. 8. Taylor interviewed a number of Tardieu’s students from the 1920s and 1930s in 1994. They referred to him fondly as “le maître” and recalled that although he expected them to work hard, he always had their best interest at heart. The analysis of French colonialism in Indochina is discussed at length in Taylor’s article, from the contemporary perspectives of both Vietnamese and Western art historical scholars.

[ix] Ibid. 10.

[x] Quoted in Marie-Agathe Simonetti, “The Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Victor Tardieu and French Art between the Wars”, (Masters of Arts thesis, University of Illinois-Chicago, 2016) 1. See also Adophe Tabarant, “Au Temple d’Angkor,” Oeuvre, September 1, 1931. Fonds Victor Tardieu, Box 125/08, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris.

[xi] Exposition Coloniale Internationale Paris 1931, Trois écoles d'art de l'Indochine: Hanoi, Phnom-Penh, Bien-Hoa  (Hanoi: Imprimerie d'Extrême-Orient, 1931) Plate III. See gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.  The size and current location of the painting are unknown.

[xii] The designation of Renaissance painters working in the middle of the fifteenth century as “primitifs” seems to have referred to the fact that this generation of artists predated the so-called “divine” painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo. In Le Pho’s time, the art historical consensus was that these painters relied more heavily on the use of line to create forms and less on the use of chiaroscuro. While this is occasionally accurate, it is equally often inaccurate, which is why the term is rarely used today.

[xiii] The United States originally agreed to oversee national free elections for both North and South Vietnam in 1956 with the goal of reuniting the two sections of the country. American fears of a Communist victory, however, led to the cancelation of the elections in South Vietnam. An eighteen-year-long guerrilla war ensued, ending only in 1973 with the withdrawal of American troops. Ultimately, the Vietnamese people formed an independent and unified government, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, in 1975.

[xiv] Nadine André-Pallois and Corinne de Ménonville, Paris-Hanoi-Saigon, l’aventure de l’art moderne au Viet  Nam (Paris: Pavillon des Arts, 1998) 171. Exhibition catalogue.

[xv] See https://vietnamnews.vn This quote is frequently repeated in the scant literature on Le Pho, but the source seems to have been the Viet Nam News, a national English-language paper based in Hanoi. The paper does follow contemporary art auctions and frequently reports on the success of Le Pho’s paintings for sale in the west.

Sold Works
Les Tulipes (Tulips, Viburnum, and Anemones) - Le Pho
Le Pho
(1907 - 2001)
Les Tulipes (Tulips, Viburnum, and Anemones)
Oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 28 3/4 inches
Signed; also titled on the reverse