Life on exile inspired great art by Vietnamese patriotic king: French descendent

By Phan Cao Tung, Thanh Nien News

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Déclin du Jour (Decline of the Day), a 1915 oil painting of King Ham Nghi which sold for 8,800 euros at an auction in Paris in 2010. File photo Déclin du Jour (Decline of the Day), a 1915 oil painting of King Ham Nghi which sold for 8,800 euros at an auction in Paris in 2010. File photo

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A visit by a fifth-generation descendant of the late Emperor Ham Nghi has revealed another side of the patriotic teenage king: an impressionist artist.
Amadine Dabat from Paris-Sorbonne University came to Ho Chi Minh City this month to make a presentation on the artistic life of the king during the time he was banished overseas for opposing French colonial rule, which was the subject of her doctoral thesis.
King Ham Nghi (1871-1944) was the eighth emperor of Vietnam’s last dynasty, the Nguyens.
He ruled between 1884 and 1885 and was the first king to be dethroned by the French colonial government. The patriotic opposition continued with two later kings, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan, also banished.
Many of Ham Nghi’s paintings are dated 1889, a year after he was exiled to Algiers, the capital of Algeria.
They were influenced by impressionism and post-impressionism, but mostly carried a darker shade, showing the sadness of a king losing his country, Dabat said.
The French government noticed his talent and wanted to spread its culture, and so assigned Marius Reynaud, a French painter living in Algeria, to be the king’s mentor, she said.
Later he met more artists in Algiers and Paris, where he went in summer every other year since 1893.
From 1899 he learned sculpture from the great Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) during his trips to France.
He would spend whole days painting and making statues.

Amadine Dabat, a fifth-generation descendant of King Ham Nghi, speaks about his artistic life in Ho Chi Minh City on March 5, 2015. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

He made many oil paintings of French and Algerian landscapes and bronze and plaster statues of women.
As an impressionist artist, sometimes he tried creating a scene under different lights – at dawn, in the afternoon and at sunset.
Painted by a sad and lonely soul, few of his works have a person in them.
Among his famous sculptures is a bronze statue of Eva made in 1925.
She holds an apple with one hand while bowing her head and hiding her face with the other arm, turning from the reality of losing her paradise.
Dabat, 28, a great grandchild of a daughter of the king, said not many people in France know about Ham Nghi, but she is proud of his life and decided to develop it into her PhD graduation thesis.
She traveled to Hue in central Vietnam, where the king used to rule, years ago to gather documents for her research.
She said the king, who died in Algeria, considered his artistic life a way to connect with his home country, because through art he had the freedom of showing his love and yearning for Vietnam.
He was painting western scenes with a Vietnamese soul, she said.
In 1926 the king held a painting exhibition in Paris, and the event made him one of the first two Vietnamese to start modern painting movements in Vietnam – that of oil paintings with western techniques. The other was painter and scholar Le Van Mien (1874-1943).
Many of his paintings were destroyed when his house was burned during a battle in Algeria in 1962.
There are now fewer than 100 works left, ones he had gifted friends and family members.
One of them, Déclin du Jour (Decline of the Day) painted in 1915, was sold at an auction in Paris in November 2010 to a French collector who bid 8,800 euros (US$9,240).
A Vietnamese woman named To Nga stopped at 8,600 euros.

King Ham Nghi with statues he had made in his residence in Algeria in 1935. File photos

King Ham Nghi's bronze statue of Eva in 1925.

A 1905 painting of an olive tree
 

A 1912 painting shows Port Blanc reefs in northwestern France.

A hill in Saint-Paterne also in the northwest of France in a 1920 painting

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