The Importance of the Fine Arts College of Indochina and Vietnamese painting (1925-1945)

Oil painting by famous Vietnamese artist : To Ngoc Van,
Oil painting by famous Vietnamese artist : To Ngoc Van, “A Girl by Lilies” (1943), oil on canvas, private collection.

Vietnamese art reflects a mixture of influences from China and from the French during the colonial periods. 

In 1925, the Fine Arts College of Indochina, or Ecole des Beaux-Art de l’Indochine, was established by a French artist Victor Tardier in Hanoi, Vietnam. Victor Tardier himself served as the school’s first director. The school taught French style art education for the students selected from all over French Indochina. The Fine Arts College of Indochina has played important role in producing many pioneers of Vietnamese modern art, such as Le Pho, Luu Van Sin, To Ngoc Van, Le Thi Luu, Nguyen Cat Tuong and many more. At the time, the college served as the country’s fine art center and held high prestige status resulting from the remarkable work acclaimed in Vietnam and abroad, since then until today. Later on, the international art market started to see the talents of Vietnamese artists and the variety of styles in Vietnamese paintings. Demand for Vietnamese art is increasing rapidly, especially in France and other countries in Europe.

From reading some art history books publishing in Vietnamese language, I found that the French school’s original objective was only to train Indochina handicraftsmen to turn out fine arts articles for exporting back to France to give extra income to the French government. It turned out that the school were producing exceptional works of art, not a craft, resulting from the good teachers and talented students.  It had slow development and did not really make money as expected. The French authorities had at many times tried to close the school, but Victor Tardieu opposed and fought for the school to stay on. He was remembered to the Vietnamese as the only Frenchmen who dared to prove that the “Annamese” (An Nam was old Vietnam’s name) had the gift and the right to become true artists in the art world. Tardier passed away in Hanoi in 1937. Another French artist that contributed a lot to the development of Vietnamese lacquer painting, oil painting of landscape, figures painting and especially the technique of painting outdoor, was Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971) who served as teacher at the school until it closed in 1945 due to trouble during the Japanese d’Etta against the French.

Besides help establishing policies and systems in teaching art classes in Vietnam, such as oil, drawing, lacquer, silk, gouache, woodcut and so on; the college was also an organizer and a sponsor to the art shows during that time.

In 1934, SADEAI (Societe Annamite d’Encouragement a l’Art et a l’Industrie), the first vocational association for the artists in Vietnam was established. Tardieu again served as its chairman.

The Famous Vietnamese Painters Graduated from Fine Arts College of Indochina and Their Paintings

Even though the trainings followed the curriculum similar to those in fine art schools in Europe, the Vietnamese artists had successfully added Asian themes and their personal styles into the art works.

In general, one Vietnamese artists would use various mediums, not specific to one type only. For example, in the list below, you will see many same names appear twice or more in various categories. Almost all artists of Vietnam had done gouache painting, for example.

  •  For oil painting, French professors including Headmaster Victor Tardieu himself,  and leading teacher, Joseph Inguimberty, gave the training for oil painting classes. The school’s outstanding students were: To Ngoc Van, Nam Son, Le Pho, Vu Can Dam, Tran Van Can, Nguyen Gia Tri, Luu Van Sin, Luong Xuan hi, Trinh Huu Ngoc, Huynh Van Thuan, Phan Tai, Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Quang Phong, Mai Van Hien, Phan Ke An, Duong Bich Lien, Van Can, Pham Viet Song, Ta Ty, just to name some.
Silk painting, A Girl with Chrysanthemum (1940), by famous Vietnamese artist: Nguyen Thi Nhung
Silk painting, A Girl with Chrysanthemum (1940), by famous Vietnamese artist: Nguyen Thi Nhung
  • For Silk paintingNguyen Phan Chanh who studied in the first class of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (1925-1930) developed and matured its  charming characteristic by himself. Other well-known painters are: Nam Son, Nguyen Sy Ngoc, Nguyen Trong Hop, Nguyen Thi Nhung, for example.
  •  For lacquer, the development of this lacquer technique came from the art courses at school, such as a course on lacquer art offered in 1927 by Joseph Inguimberty, a teacher at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’indochina and the introduction of lacquer in the fine art curriculum in 1937. Nguyen Gia Tri started producing modern art paintings using lacquer since then and established his new style.   Later on, in 1939, he held a one-man exhibition to test his new style and see if they were welcomed by the public. The result was very positive.  Lacquer paintings had became more popular and well-known.  Other famous lacquer painters from this period of time were: Song Van Trung, Pham Hau, Nguyen Hang, Tran Van Can, Nguyen Gia Tri, Nguyen Duc Sung, Nguyen Van Ty, Hang Tich Chu, Nguyen Van Binh, Duong Hung Minh, Nguyen Sy Ngoc, Tran Dinh Tho, Nguyen Sang, Huynh Van Gam, Ta Thuc Binh, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Phan Ke An, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Kim Dong, Le Quoc Loc, for example.
  • For watercolor, the famous watercolorist during that time were:  Nam Son, Hoang Lap Non (ink), Nguyen Sy Ngoc, Nguyen Trong Hop, just to name a few.
  • For woodcut or woodblock art, this technique has been used in Vietnamese art world for a long time since 17th century.  The famous artists at this time were: An Son Do, Duc Thuan, Pham Van Don.

  • For gouache and pastel. Gouache is a type of paint consisting of pigment suspended in water. Gouache differs from watercolor in that the particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional, inert, white pigment such as chalk is also present. This makes gouache heavier and more opaque, with greater reflective qualities.  Gouache made its way to Vietnam after oil painting.  It was more economically and allowed the artists to produce paintings in similar opaque effects.  Soon gouache painting had became popular in Vietnam, although it has not been used much in European painting.  Famous gouache and pastel painters at this time were:  Le Thi Luu (pastel), Nguyen Do Cung, Nguyen Dung (pastel), Nguyen Tien Chung, Ta Thuc Binh, Bui Xuan Phai,  Le Thanh Duc, Mai Van Hien, Van Cao, for example.

Gouache painting by famous Vietnamese artist: Le Thanh Duc
Gouache painting by famous Vietnamese artist: Le Thanh Duc
Gouache painting by famous Vietnamese artist: Nguyen Do Cung
Gouache painting by famous Vietnamese artist: Nguyen Do Cung