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(Vietnamese, 1907-2001)
Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl)
signed 'Le Pho', and signed again in Chinese, and dated '1930' (upper left)
ink and gouache on silk
ink and gouache on silk
76 x 45 cm. (29 7/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1930
one seal of the artist
Acquired directly from the artist in Paris, France by the grandfather of the present owner
Thence by descent to the present owner in 1980

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Lot Essay

Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) (Lot 26) is an exceptional work by the painter Le Pho: historically, intellectually, and artistically. Profoundly Vietnamese, this is a manifesto of painting from the Hanoi Academy of Fine Arts at its zenith.
Le Pho painted this work in 1930, the same year as his graduation as part of the first batch of students of the Hanoi Academy of Fine Arts, alongside Nguyen Phan Chanh and Mai Thu. Under the aegis of the Frenchman Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) who founded the school in 1924, the Academy became an extraordinary nursery of talent for these young, ambitious painters. Le Pho's skill was already widely recognized: Tardieu selected him as his right-hand man for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris and Vietnam's most important newspaper, "L'Indochine" described him as "a true painter" (L'Indochine, 5 February 1930). His compositions, whether oil on canvas, lacquer (though, rare, due to his allergy to lacquer itself) or - his pinnacle of excellence - gouache and ink on silk, were all extremely well received.
Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) is an extraordinary masterpiece. The pose of the isolated young girl within her salon reminds us keenly of a slightly later work, Jeune fille en blanc painted in 1931 - 1932. The similarities between these two paintings are obvious: the same sitter with a distinctive almond-shaped face, slender eyebrows and elongated silhouette; an identical white ao dai with wide sleeves and traditional Tonkinese headdress; the same raw silk of the plain and unembellished background. Even the artist's seals and signature scripts are similar. But the differences are also not insignificant: in the Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) the young girl is standing upright, poised and paused in a typical Hanoian interior of the period. Her salon is strongly influenced by the dominant Chinese style; the table is draped with a patterned silk cloth on which is set the Chinese blue porcelain bowl of the title, while in the rear are a hardwood armchair and lacquered furniture. By contrast, Jeune fille en blanc is painted from mirror perspective, the girl faces right instead of left, and reclines on a colorful cushion with no further accoutrements of social status or tradition. Le Pho has freed her from the earlier, claustrophobic social environment. The explanation for this change can be found by searching Le Pho's personal life story.
In a conversation with the artist in 2001, Le Pho revealed that as a young man, he had fallen in love with a beautiful young lady in Hanoi. One day, he decided to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Le Pho's memory of the affair was that he was spurned for not showing enough respect for the father of his beloved. In any case, he was refused, and the young lady remained in the family fold. From that moment on, the Hanoian bourgeoisie would never see this beauty dressed in any other color than white, perhaps as a symbol of mourning for her beloved. Therefore it makes sense that in the 1930 painting of his love, Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl), Le Pho has depicted her as a traditionalist: the daughter of a bourgeois family, posed within the physical trappings of social status which led to his refusal as her betrothed. However in the 1931 - 32 portrait, Jeune fille en blanc, tempered by the passage of time, the "girl in white" has blossomed into a more idealized version of herself: relaxed, divested of her traditional identity, with no furnishings to indicate her social standing. The attention is squarely on the sitter and the role she occupies within the artist's memory.
Apart from its significance to Le Pho's artistic career, Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) is also an artifact of early 20th century Vietnamese culture. After his permanent move to France in 1937, while Le Pho's tremendous skill in painting Vietnamese beauties on silk did not abate, their surroundings became increasingly idealized - a nostalgic homage to the utopic Vietnam which Le Pho left behind. Garden landscapes, or ladies with flowing hair standing in windows and balconies amidst filmy drapery became a significant part of Le Pho's oeuvre. Unlike these later works, Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) of 1930 was drawn true to life, while Le Pho was physically resident in Hanoi and not yet prone to romancing details. The painting meticulously documents the interior of an affluent Hanoi household even down to the refined porcelain ware of the blue bowl, unconsciously giving an insight to the lifestyle and refinements enjoyed by Hanoi society. The girl is fashionably yet modestly dressed, scarf draped elegantly around her elbows according to standards of propriety, her hair neatly wound under her Tonkinese cap. After his departure for France, Le Pho never again captured the same precision and profusion of cultural detail within his works. Le Bol Bleu (The Blue Bowl) is not only an artistic masterpiece, but also a remarkable historical document of the Vietnam of times past.
Christie's is grateful to Mr. Jean-Francois Hubert, Senior Consultant for Vietnamese Art, for this catalogue entry.

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