Artist to Know: Lê Phổ

Liz Catalano
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Flower Painting from Vietnamese Impressionist Comes to Auction

Vietnamese art has historically been less represented in the global art market than other Southeast Asian countries. However, the work of 20th-century artist Lê Phổ has consistently shown a strong presence in both private collections and at auction. Lê Phổ was among the first artists to tangibly link Western Impressionism with classical Vietnamese motifs and is today remembered for his lush paintings of flowers.

Offered in A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals’ upcoming Asian Works of Art event is an oil painting by Lê Phổ, framed and signed in both English and Chinese. Bidding for this and over 300 other lots will start at 6:00 PM EDT on August 24th, 2020. Find out more about Lê Phổ before the auction begins.

Lê Phổ in his studio. Image from Nguyen Art Gallery.
Lê Phổ in his studio. Image from Nguyen Art Gallery.

Lê Phổ was born the tenth child in a family of 20 and was allowed to pursue art at an early age. His father was the Viceroy of Tonkin, now North Vietnam. During the 1920s, when Lê Phổ was still a teenager, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Hanoi. His experience at the university encouraged him to travel to Paris and continue his studies. This experience in Paris, coupled with the French colonial influence in Vietnam during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, connected Lê Phổ to the Impressionist movement.

Many collectors identify three periods in Lê Phổ’s art, roughly marked by his engagement with the Parisian art scene. It was there that he began composing vivid paintings of flowers in vases, as well as traditional Vietnamese women and families. “Many of his paintings emit a sentiment of nostalgia for the lush vegetation and colorful landscapes of his native country,” writes Nora Taylor of the Art Institute of Chicago about Lê Phổ’s work. “These portraits of the Vietnam of his youth are also remembered in Vietnamese art history as the strongest examples of colonial era painting.”

In the 1960s, Lê Phổ entered an exclusive business partnership with American gallerist Wally Findlay. This move helped popularize Lê Phổ’s work abroad and secured his commercial success for the rest of his career. Findlay Galleries exposed American collectors and art admirers to Lê Phổ and other Vietnamese artists, the beginning of a more global appreciation for the country’s art.

Lê Phổ, Composition. Image from A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals.
Lê Phổ, Composition. Image from A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals.

Available in A.H. Wilkens’ upcoming sale is a strong example of Lê Phổ’s painting style. The offered piece, titled Composition, was executed before the 1970s and was formerly held by Findlay Galleries. This oil painting is dominated by shades of yellow, from the background to the flowers to the dress of the subject. A Vietnamese woman appears to be tending to the blooms, arranged in groups on a table. The presale estimate for this piece is CAD 25,000 to $35,000 (USD 18,840 to $26,380).

Lê Phổ enjoyed a long career before passing away in 2001 at the age of 94. His success was driven largely by the visual appeal of his work and his subtle connections between global painting styles. “Le Pho captured Vietnamese subjects in a style that crossed over Eastern and Occidental techniques. The result is a style that is desirable to Eastern and Western collectors alike, and fits in a broad range of collecting goals,” said Frederick S. Clark of Findlay Galleries in 2019.

Lê Phổ, Les deux enfants et les roses. Image from Heritage Auctions.
Lê Phổ, Les deux enfants et les roses. Image from Heritage Auctions.

Sales within the last five years have seen increased interest in Vietnamese art in general, but especially for the works of Lê Phổ. The number of Lê Phổ artworks sold between 2018 and 2019 nearly tripled, according to Widewalls, a trend that reflects the growing worth of the artist’s paintings. His auction record was set in May of 2019 after a nude portrait sold for HKD 10,925,000 (USD 1,409,500) with Christie’s Hong Kong. This price was comfortably above the painting’s high estimate of HKD 6,000,000 (USD 774,100) and was formerly owned by Vietnamese-American collector Thuan Phan.

However, most of Lê Phổ’s paintings sell between USD 50,000 and $100,000, according to Joshua Kodner. Les deux enfants et les roses, an oil painting showing two children with a bouquet of flowers, reached $50,000 in 2018 at a Heritage Auctions event. In the same year, Brunk Auctions offered Lê Phổ’s Mère et l’enfant with an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. The lot finished with a price of $170,100 after 30 competitive bids, more than three times the high estimate. Lê Phổ’s popularity at auction shows no evidence of slowing down.

The yellow flower painting from Lê Phổ will come under the hammer with A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals on August 24th, 2020 at 6:00 PM EDT. Visit LiveAuctioneers for more information or to place a bid.

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