"Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong" - Vietnamese painting reaches the highest record of $3,1 mln

Mai Trung Thu's famous painting, "The Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong", has had the highest record of $3.1 million for a Vietnamese painting at Sotheby's Auction House.
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The masterpiece was sold at Sotheby's Auction House in Hong Kong last Sunday, but the identity of the buyer is not known.

'Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong' by Mai Trung Thu. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.
'Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong' by Mai Trung Thu. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

It had been valued at $900,000-$1.2 million. At the auction, the reserve price was $500,000, but the bids kept rising until it went past $2.5 million, and cost $3.1 million after tax and fees.

The previous record of $1.36 million was held by Le Pho’s ‘Young Girl With Peonies’ last year.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong is a 135.5x71 cm oil on canvas work done in 1930, which the auction house described as "...this masterpiece, beautifully rendered in the oil medium, is exceptionally rare as the artist devoted himself to painting in silk for most of his career, according to VnExpress.

"The beguiling portrait also captures Mai Thu’s deep admiration of its sitter, a noble lady rumored to be the artist’s love interest. Encapsulating his affections for Ms. Phuong, this work is special within Mai Thu’s oeuvre, as there are only two known works painted of this subject."

The work was first exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi in 1930 and then at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris.

It was previously owned by Dothi Dumonteil, a Vietnamese woman who migrated to France as a child, and her husband Pierre Dumonteil, an art collector, until recently.

It appeared in the award-winning 1993 Vietnamese film, ‘The Scent of Green Papaya,’ directed by Tran Anh Hung, which went on to become Vietnam’s first ever entry for the foreign-language Oscar Award in 1994.

Thu was a famous modern art painter in the early years of the 20th century. He lived and worked most of his life in France.

Associated with silk paintings of women, children and everyday life in Vietnam, he was named along with Vu Cao Dam, Le Thi Luu and Le Pho as the four most prominent artists of the golden age of Vietnamese modern art.

Mai Trung Thu: Life & Career

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

Mai Trung Thu left a great wealth of spiritual values with gentle paintings such as Kisses, Happiness, Longevity and Affection. Obviously, his artworks’ title made people feel his optimism and romanticism in Vietnamese Modern Graphics.

Mai Trung Thu was born in 1906 in Do Nha village, An Duong District, Kien An Province (Tan Tien commune, An Duong District, Hai Phong). His grandfather is Mai Trung Que – a mandarin was appointed to an important post. His father is Mai Trung Cat – the governor of Bac Ninh; he was awarded the title Baron by the French government.

In 1925, Mai Trung Thu became a student of the first class (with Nguyen Phan Chanh, Le Van De, Le Pho, Nguyen Cao Luyen) of the Indochina Fine Arts College. It was the only fine arts college for Indochina students; Victor Tardieu was Principal and he was not only a competent teacher but also a great French intellectual.

During the school years at the Indochina Fine Arts College, Mai Trung Thu was interested in oil paintings that depicted scenes of Vietnamese rural life at that time and then he chose silk as the material to execute valuable paintings. His paintings featured light colors; people and landscapes in his paintings were as bright as those of To Ngoc Van’s paintings.

In 1930, after graduating from the Indochina Fine Arts College, Mai Trung Thu was appointed as a painting teacher at Hue High School for the Gifted. At that time, his talent in silk painting was flaunted. He created a large number of artworks characterizing elegant women in Hue, stunning landscapes by Huong river and curved roofs of the mausoleum. The period of 6 years in Hue Imperial City gave him deep memories and turned him to an influential position in Vietnamese Contemporary Fine Arts.

In the 1930s, along with other painters, Mai Trung Thu attended exhibitions in many countries around the world such as Italy (Rome 1932, Milan 1934, Naples 1934), Belgium (Brussels 1936), USA (San Francisco 1937) and France where he settled later. After taking part in Paris trade show in 1936, Mai Trung Thu decided to live and work in Paris – the city of light which attracted masters all over the world at that time. During decades of living and working in Paris, his main inspiration was young women, children, landscapes, cottages and temples in Vietnam.

In 1974, after living abroad for 38 years, Mai Trung Thu returned to Vietnam with many other artists including the sculptor Diem Phung Thi (Mai Trung Thu’s student) at the invitation of the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

In 1980, he died of cardiovascular disease at the age of 75. His corpse was buried at the foot of a mountain close to Paris.

Mai Trung Thu’s artworks

Mai Trung Thu Lady Writing a Poem, 1943 (Photo: Sotheby's)
Mai Trung Thu Lady Writing a Poem, 1943 (Photo: Sotheby's)

Mai Trung Thu made substantial contributions to the diversity of contemporary silk painting. His favorite theme was women, children and daily life combining with Vietnam’s cultural identity. He placed shimmering colors of Impressionism on the silk without integrating into its aesthetic attitude. His artworks displayed in many exhibitions all over the world significantly contributed to build the reputation for Vietnamese Contemporary Fine Arts in the West – the center formed art movements throughout the history of humanity.

Mai Thu’s painting of young women expressed the beauty of femininity, grace and elegance with slender and lovely figures, especially the eyes. The eyes in his paintings were considered as the window of a melancholic and sentimental soul. The characters in his paintings had sad eyes which made the viewers always miss them.

Under the influence of neoclassicism along with the graphics, Mai Trung Thu devoted himself to create paintings of young women. His brushstrokes were neither complicated nor religious but expressed a gentle, romantic and fragile soul.

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