Do Thi Tham
For Vietnamese artists, portraits of family, friends and loved ones are a constant source of inspiration.
For many artists, family members are favorite subjects, and results of these portraits can become great works of art. One of the most highly regarded Vietnamese paintings of the 20th century is “Em Thuy” (Little Thuy) by the renowned artist Tran Van Can, which has been recognized as a National Treasure. The subject of the painting is the artist’s 8-year-old niece.
In the era of the four most influential painters of the 20th century, collectively known as Nghiem – Lien – Phai – Sang, art collector Mr. Bong owned a series of paintings and sketches that his artist friends drew of his wife. Mrs. Bong epitomized the elegant beauty of women from the capital city; one time, Bui Xuan Phai came by for a visit and sketched Mrs. Bong, then left the following words: “… I would like to take the liberty to draw four sketches of Mme. Bong, by charcoal, pencil, ink pen, and marker. All four pieces are dedicated to you.”
Artist families are usually not in short supply of portraits, either done by the family members themselves or received as gifts from their fellow artists. The family of painter Doan Hoang Lam has a collection of portraits of little Bi (the artist’s daughter), director Doan Hoang Giang (the artist’s father) and his own self-portraits. The most frequent subject of Lam’s portraits is his daughter, of whom has created up to a hundred portraits: “Simply because I love her the most!” the artist says.
Also showing affection for his children, painter Le Thanh Minh made only two portraits, but these are great works of labor and long-lasting value which are now in the family’s possession. Artist Thuc Quyen is the subject of the innocent and pure portraits that her father, professor and artist Pham Cong Thanh gave her as memories of her childhood. These paintings have been on the walls of the family’s home for decades. Likewise, artist Hai Kien has a whole collection of paintings and sketches of his wife.
For the painters, portraits allow them to explore and create with a diverse variety of approaches. The portraits must resemble the subject and capture the spirit and aura of the person but their expression can vary widely. With the same character, a little girl named N.A., daughter of an art-loving family in Hanoi, the portrait by artist Bui Van Tuat is simple and familiar, while those done by artist Nguyen Van Cuong manage to express her elegant fragility. The genius of the artists is evident in that one would immediately recognize little N.A. in any of the portraits and know which painting was done by whom.
That is why some say “portraits are human,” an adage that artist Hai Kien keeps close to his heart. For Kien, the personality and emotions of the painter are expressed through the images and colors on the painting.
“I like doing portraits and paintings of objects, but the subject I want to show on the canvas is the emotions that I have for that face or that object,” he said.
Or as painter Hong Le says of the portrait of her close friend, artist Thuc Quyen: “I think her pose and her hair are so beautiful and abstract, like a painting. I only add a bit of warm color as she has a lively personality, so it suits her.”
In terms of the difficulties in drawing loved ones, for painter Doan Hoang Lam, the main challenge lies in the fact that they are so close and know all aspects of each other’s personality, so the painter tends to overreach, wanting his work to express everything he knows of his subject. This requires the artist to exert much more effort than merely drawing a likeness.
Each portrait will be a mark in the life of a person and a family. According to artist Lam: “It is hard to say which portrait I like best. I like every painting that I sign my name on. Each one is a piece of emotion or a meaningful phase in my life.”
Or for Van (the father of little N.A.) when talking about the portraits of his wife and daughter, “Through the language of art, and the viewpoint of the artists, our family would like to capture the moments in the lives of our loved ones. As each portrait is completed and hung on the walls of the family’s home, it gradually becomes much more than just a painting; it becomes indispensable as it always creates a warm feeling for each family member. For us, portraits of our loved ones are invaluable because of the special feelings they bring as we admire them every day.”