Vietnam Art Books -- The Painter Who Discovers Himself in Silk
By C. David Thomas

The Painter Who Discovers Himself in Silk
By C. David Thomas

According to Vietnamese legend, in the second century BC a beautiful princess, named Hoang Phu Thieu Hoa, discovered small caterpillars (later known as silkworms) spinning cocoons of fine thread. She took this knowledge to the nearby villages of Co Do and Van Sa located in the Ba Vi District of Son Tay Province. The weavers in these villages refined the silk thread and spread their knowledge through the sixty neighboring villages. In the 11th century Queen Nguyen Phi Y Lan founded the first silk weaving workshop in the capital city of Thang Long (Ha Noi). The production of high quality silk is a long and difficult process even today; as a result it is considered a precious material. The best silk still comes from the northern regions where the princess discovered it twenty centuries ago.

In 1925, more than two thousand years after Princess Hoa’s discovery, an eager student at the newly established Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine experimented with painting in watercolor on silk, a precious but unforgiving material. He had earlier attempted to paint with oil on canvas, a newly introduced style from Europe, but found it difficult and uncomfortably foreign. The first director of the school, Victor Tardieu, suggested that he study silk painting done in China during the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-906 AD and 960-1279 AD respectively). This student, Nguyen Phan Chanh, went on to become founder of the Vietnamese silk-painting tradition.

Vietnamese fine art is often divided into four distinct periods between 1925 and the present. The elders-those whose first works date before the August 1945 Revolution. The second generation, 1946-1954-artists educated during the resistance against the French. And 1955-1987-the younger generation, those who were trained during the resistance against the American War and reconstruction. And a fourth period now beginning about 1988 until the present-those trained after doi moi (Vietnam’s Open-door Policy).

Throughout Vietnam’s four-thousand-year history, its art consisted mainly of religious, folk, and royal art and was heavily influenced by China’s nearly one thousand year occupation of the country. The establishment of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine by the French colonial administration and the influence of Victor Tardieu’s directorship were a primary importance in influencing modern Vietnamese fine arts.

Tardieu was born in Lyon on April 30, 1870, to a family of silk traders. After a successful career as an artist and teacher in France he was awarded the Indochina Prize and in 1921 he left France for the last time and traveled to Vietnam. His son, the well-known poet Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), wrote, “He (Victor Tardieu) welcomed his departure to the East, somehow in the way Gauguin left Europe for fabulous Oceania as a liberation and a renewal.”

An Asian scholar himself, he realized that many of his best students were having difficulty in expressing themselves through the western style of oil painting and were struggling to find a truly Vietnamese voice. Tardieu maintained a core curriculum of classical European training but felt that his students needed to develop a distinctly Vietnamese style of painting and encouraged them to find a truly Vietnamese voice. He collected reproductions of silk paintings from the Tang and Song Dynasties from China, as well as Chinese brushes and silks, and encouraged his students to experiment with the traditional local materials of lacquer and silk. Some of his students, Nguyen Gia Tri, Nguyen Sang, To Ngoc Van, and Tran Van Can, Bui Xuan Phai, and Nguyen Phan Chanh, began to develop a distinctly Vietnamese style of art. Tri and Sang were later to be recognized as Vietnam’s leading lacquer painters while Van and Phai were better known for their oil paintings.

Silk painting is an extremely difficult and unforgiving medium in which to work, requiring great patience and discipline from the artists and discouraging many. Before an artist can begin to paint on silk it must be carefully stretched on a wooden frame. Painting on silk is done using thin layers of watercolor. If the colors are applied too thickly the unique property of silk painting can be lost. The colors must be applied with great care because a wrong stroke of the brush is irreversible. There are many types of silk that can be used ranging from very close woven long grained silk to more coarse and short grain silk. Because areas of silk are often left unpainted the color of the silk must also be taken into account. Once completed the silk is removed from the wooden stretchers and carefully mounted on a special do (mulberry) paper. Chanh introduced all of these techniques to other Vietnamese artists.

In 1931 the new style was recognized internationally when Nguyen Phan Chanh exhibited his now famous painting "Choi o an quan" (Children Playing a Game of Squares). It was displayed with other works from the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine at the Paris International Colonial Exhibition, and prompted Jean Gallotti, renowned writer for L’Art Vivant to state:

Painters give us the purest emotional happiness. In the first rank is Mr. Nguyen Phan Chanh, whose silks are real master-works. “Itinerant Singers,” “Meal,” “Dressmakers,” realistic scenes painted with no stroke, with large flat tints, almost in camaieu, and in gray, black, blackish brown, and red brown, express peace and a quiet simplicity that is highly moving. The harmony in composition, and often, the graciousness of faces, and the penetrating flavor of Far-Eastern living, the emanation of a soul very different from our soul but very close to us, as we feel it, as a result of communion in love for what is fine: everything is delightful.

(Jean Gallotti, l’Illustration, No. 4608, June 17, 1931)

Six years after entering the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Nguyen Phan Chanh had at the age of thirty-eight painted what became one of the most influential works in Vietnam’s short history of fine arts. He had synthesized the classical European training, his studies of Chinese and Japanese silk painting and his love for traditional Vietnamese culture and handicrafts to develop his own distinctively Vietnamese voice. He felt that one of the unique properties of watercolor on silk, as discovered by the Chinese, was the ability to eliminate the often distracting surface detail of his subjects and concentrate on their inner souls. His color palette was simple yet rich, relying on the deep red brown of the Vietnamese soil along with yellows, greens, and oranges of the landscape around him and accented by the pure black and white clothes of his subjects. His paintings offered rare glimpses into the quiet and tranquil everyday life of the Vietnamese people.

Over the next fifty years until his death in 1984, Nguyen Phan Chanh continued to refine his style and to capture the scenes of everyday life. In spite of the tremendous changes, wars and upheaval in his homeland during this time, he never departed from the path he had chosen for his art-the simple beauties of daily life. His favorite subjects were those of women and children at work and at play both in the city and countryside. He was equally at home depicting young city girls studying for an exam as with showing a family in the countryside eating their evening meal. His paintings are important far beyond their artistic beauty, coming to represent the spirit of the Vietnamese people, one transcending political, economic and social changes during his lifetime.

As a member of the first graduating class from the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Chanh’s influence on not only the art of his classmates but on Vietnamese culture was considerable. His paintings are part of the national treasure of his country and are studied by Vietnamese artists working in all media. Moreover, his images are reproduced in books, calendars, and T-shirts, making it familiar nationwide.

His influence on silk painters can be seen in the works of Nguyen Van Long (b. 1907), Nguyen Dinh Ham (b. 1911), Linh Chi (b. 1921), Nguyen Tien Chung (b. 1914), Vu Giang H­uong (b. 1930), Nguyen Van Chung (b. 1936), Le Thi Kim Bach (b. 1938), Phan Cam Thuong (b. 1957), Bui Hoai Mai (b. 1962) and Le Quoc Viet (b. 1972). The works of other artists who have chosen different media also reflect his influence in their attitude as they approach their canvas, paper or stone. His art will inspire artists everywhere and will remain in the hearts of the Vietnamese people.

It was the quiet beauty of Chanh’s paintings that first drew me to Vietnamese fine art. As a painter/printmaker myself, I am still amazed every time I see one of his paintings at his mastery over such a difficult media. While sitting in my home in Newton and looking at Chanh’s paintings, I am immediately transported to a different time and place, a time and place Nguyen Phan Chanh loved and captured like no other artist of his time. He attained the goal that all artists spend their life trying to reach.

In 1994 the Indochina Arts Partnership of Newton, MA, USA, selected Chanh, along with six other artists for an exhibition honoring Vietnam’s first generation of great painters. Entitled “Seven Pillars: The National Treasure Artists of Vietnam,” the exhibit showcases his and six others’ work to represent the generation most influential today on Vietnamese artists. This exhibition is not yet open in the United States but much of their work can be viewed on the Indochina Arts Partnership’s web site,

C. David Thomas

Author’s Biography

David Thomas was born in Portland, Maine, and is founder and director of the Indochina Arts Partnership.

Having joined the U.S. Army in 1969, Thomas was sent to Pleiku, South Vietnam, as a combat engineer/artist. In 1987 he returned to Vietnam for the first time. Since then he has made more than forty trips to Vietnam to do research and conduct programs of cultural exchange between the United States and Vietnam. Thomas has curated three exhibitions: “As Seen by Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War” (the first major cultural exchange between the U.S and Vietnam since the war), “An Ocean Apart: Contemporary Vietnamese Artwork from the United States and Vietnam,” and “Seven Pillars: The National Treasure Artists of Vietnam.”

In 1999, Thomas became the first foreigner to receive the Vietnam Art Medal, one of the nations prestigious art awards.

Reprinted with the kind permission of VietNam Cultural Windows


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