This depiction of motherhood is perhaps one of Le Pho's most accomplished paintings, especially because of its theme, which carried a profound significance for the Vietnamese maestro, and the special silk-painting technique employed, which he perfected.
Le Pho's first visit to France was in 1931, when he went to Paris and Vincennes as an assistant to Victor Tardieu, then head of the Hanoi Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who was in France as a jury member for the Exposition Coloniale. After Paris Le Pho visited other cities throughout France like Moulins, where he was especially impressed by a triptych attributed to a 15th Century painter only known by the title of 'The Master of Moulins'. He also travelled to Italy, Germany and Belgium, where he paid numerous visits to cathedrals and monasteries and admired their treasures of sacred art. Le Pho particularly marvelled at the works of Botticelli (1444 - 1510), Ghirlandaio (1449 - 1494), and Memling (1435 - 1495). The trip must have been a profound eye-opener for Le Pho as it enabled him to comprehend how art elevates the spirit in a personal manner. Indeed, subject matters relating to European sacred art, such as the Madonna and child, became a prevailing feature that Le Pho would continue to explore in his future works.
The artist returned to Vietnam soon after his European trip and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Hanoi. Six years later, after numerous visits to Europe and China (1933 - 1934), Le Pho decided to leave his comfortable post as an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he taught since 1934, in order to make a living as an artist. One of his first achievements was to perfect the technique of silk painting. In his version, a piece of Japanese pongee silk is placed on a light cardboard card. Remy glue is then spread onto the silk in a criss-cross pattern and the glue bubbles are carefully eliminated by pushing them towards the edges of the silk, which is then put to dry overnight. As the final step, gouache and ink is applied.
Using his refined technique, Le Pho executed this present masterpiece, titled Maternit, around 1938, one year after moving to Paris. It was the perfect beginning to the artist's lifelong romance with the French capital, which became his home until his last days in 2001. He expertly captured the spirit of light achieved by the 15th century European masters, who were faithful advocates of the theory of Marsilio Ficino (1433 - 1499), a philosopher and visionary responsible for the Renaissance revival of Platonic Theology. Ficino's theory maintains that light is both external and internal. It is external because it spreads on all things without breaking and is therefore immaterial and is by essence divine. It is internal because it is likened to the 'alabaster lamp' that expresses the soul. Excited about being back in Europe, the artist revisited his fascination with Renaissance Art which had enthralled him during his first Parisian trip. He also produced some of his best and most inspired works during this period.
Maternit, bears a compositional resemblance to Botticelli's Madonna and Child with Angels (c. 1465), currently in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Although clearly inspired by religious-themed paintings, Le Pho reinterprets the subject such that Maternit is a representation of a Vietnamese mother and a child rather than that of religions icons, namely the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Having lost his mother when he was two and his father when he was eight, this portrait of maternity and fundamental humanity seems to take an even more poignant significance.
Le Pho's mastery of the silk painting technique expresses both delicate translucence and brilliance in texture and palette. But perhaps most importantly, the soul with which he imbues his paintings articulates the richness and complexity of his work, which is layered with themes of divinity, of motherhood, of loss, of hope, of Western Christianity and Indochinese identity. Together, these elements firmly establish Maternit as a tour de force in the history of Vietnamese modern art.