Portrait de Mademoiselle Phương by painter Mai Trung Thu. Photo sothebys.com

Offered in the auction Beyond Legends: Modern Art Evening Sale of Sotheby's Hong Kong, the painting was sold for a record price of US$3.1 million on Sunday.

With a guide price of $500,000, the price of the painting eventually reached $2.573 million. After taxes and fees were added, the price totalled $3.1 million.

This is more than double the previous highest valued auction sale which the painting Khỏa Thân (Nude) by Le Pho, which sold for $1.4 million.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Phương was painted by Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980) in 1930, when he was an art teacher at Lycée Français de Hue (a French High School in Hue).

Mai Trung Thu is pictured in 1964.

As one of the first artists who graduated from the first course of the Fine Arts College of Indochina, or Ecole des Beaux-Art de l'Indochine, in Hanoi he was classified as one of the four most renowned Vietnamese artists based in France, together with Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam and Le Luu.

His reputation was closely associated with silk paintings on the subjects of women, children and everyday life, showcasing typical Asian culture in the early 20th century. This painting, beautifully rendered in the oil medium, is exceptionally rare as the artist devoted himself to painting on silk for most of his career.

According to Sotheby’s description, “a monumental, yet remarkably tender and intimate, Mai Trung Thu’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Phương stands as the most significant and largest painting by the artist to be offered at auction… Poignantly, the beguiling portrait also captures Mai Thu’s deep admiration of its sitter, a noble lady rumoured to be the artist’s love interest”.

The painting was first exhibited at the Fine Arts College of Indochina in 1930, before travelling to Paris to attend the prestigious 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, announcing the painter’s entrance into the European art world.

“Mai Thu’s Portrait de Mademoiselle Phương is one of the most significant and recognisable masterpieces in Vietnamese art history, often likened to Le Pho’s L’age heaureux (The Happy Age). Capturing the lyrical and romantic qualities typical of the early oil paintings of the École’s students, both works were well-received at the 1931 Exposition,” wrote Sotheby's on its website. 

Portrait of Mademoiselle Phương was also featured in the iconic film The Scent of the Green Papaya, a Vietnamese-language film directed by Tran Anh Hung in France in 1993.

According to Sotheby's, the painting is from the Madame Dothi Dumonteil Collection.

Art researcher Ngo Kim Khoi said that the portrait is often called the "Mona Lisa of Vietnam", presented in simple colours.

“It is its simplicity that creates pure and gentle beauty that could go straight into the soul with the lightest steps. From Phuong, a beauty is radiant from her sitting posture, her eyes that contain hundreds of words that she wishes to say and move viewers’ hearts. The painting's history is just as beautiful as she was, born to step onto the stage of fame,” he said. 


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