First Generation Artist: École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine French Influenced
Tô Ngọc Vân was born in Hanoi on Hàng Quạt Street on 15 December 1906. His father was Tô Văn Phú and his mother Nguyễn Thị Nhớn. His paternal family was urban bourgeoisie, while his poor maternal family came from Confucian scholars who lived from small trade. Being from a poor family, he had to start work at a young age. From age six onwards, he lived as an adopted child in the family of his grandmother and aunt because of his parents’ poverty. He was poorly treated and only permitted to meet his parents a few times a year.
After finishing his third school year at Pomelo Junior High School (Bưởi Trung Học Cơ Sở), he quit and began painting in preparation for his entrance exam to fine art school. After several
To begin with, Vân had a difficult time surviving as an artist and had to give private drawing lessons as well as working for magazines and newspapers such as Nhân Loại, Phong Hóa, Ngày Nay and Thanh Nghị. He wrote under the pen name Ái Mỹ. Other pseudonyms that he used were Tô Văn Xuân and Tô Tử.
In 1931, he won the silver medal at the colonial exhibition in Paris for his oil painting Lá thư (A letter). In 1932, he received an honorary award at the French painters’ exhibition. When his skills were finally recognized in the early 30s, he was finally able to make a sustainable living as a painter.
On 1 January 1932, he married Nguyễn Thị Hoàn – his first model – with whom he had five children. In 1933 he became a member of the French artists association. In the same year, he was invited by the emperor Bảo Đại to the palace in Huế to paint. In 1935 he won an award at Société Annamite D’Encouragement à l’Art et à l’Industrie (Annamese Association for the Encouragement of Art and Industry (SADEAI )). During those years, armed with a folding easel and paint tubes, he walked all over the countryside near Hanoi trying to render its beauty and variety.
Between 1935 and 1938 he taught at Sisowath School in Cambodia and painted in Phnom Penh. From 1938 to 1939 he taught at Bưởi Trung Học Cơ Sở (Pomelo Junior High School)– the school of his childhood. From 1939 he taught drawing at École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, then became an official teacher and professor at the art college.
In 1943 he took part in the Foyer de l’Art Annamite (Home of Annamite ART) (FARTA)) group and also wrote about art for Hanoi newspapers. In 1945, after the revolution, he made two large posters. In 1946 he made a portrait of Hồ Chí Minh and was appointed the director of the then new Vietnam Fine Arts College. In 1944, when the college moved to Sơn Tây after heavy fighting, he organized an exhibition of students’ work together with Joseph Inguimberty at the House of Information on Tràng Tiền Street. A year later, he left Hanoi for Bát Tràng.
A favourite quote of Vân’s, despite his cool acceptance of extreme revolutionary ideals, taken from a speech Picasso made to Vietnamese artists. Corinne de Ménonville, Vietnamese Painting: From Tradition to Modernity, ARHIS: Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire, Paris
In 1946 he participated in the Việt Bắc Propaganda Group, making posters and slogans on walls. He then took part in the “August” theatrical group, doing makeup and playing minor parts on stage. In 1947 he became the leader of the Cultural Group for the National Good in Military Zone 10.
In 1948 Vân worked as chief of resistance in the culture group in Vĩnh Chânh, An Giang Province. He then became director of the lacquer-painting workshop and founded the literature and arts newspaper, writing many articles. In the same year, Vân took part in National Convention on Art and Literature, having heated arguments with the Party General Secretary Trường Chinh on the topic of whether propaganda paintings could be considered works of art. These debates highlighted Vân’s lukewarm acceptance of the principles of revolutionary ideals and social realism in art.
In 1949, Vân followed the Capital Regiment in order to paint its fighter’s activities for three months. He also decorated the governmental relation salon with paintings. Upon his return in 1950, he was made Director of the Central Fine Arts College in Phú Thọ Province. A year later, Vân was reinstated as Director of the Vietnam Fine Arts College in Hanoi.
Vân participated in the Biên Giới border campaign and the liberation of Lào Cai in 1950. In 1952 he joined the campaign to boost production and economization by drawing further portraits of Hồ Chí Minh and made use of a new subject – renowned French impressionist painter, Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin.
In 1953 he went on a re-educational pilgrimage to live in Ninh Dân village in Phú Thọ Province. He lived with the villagers and painted pictures of their struggle against landlords. In 1954, he made a series of sketches of peasants’ life.
In April 1954 Tô Ngọc Vân was ordered to go to Ðiện Biên Phủ to make sketches of military activities at the front, depicting soldiers and people’s lives in Tây Bắc and Ðiện Biên Phủ. On 17 June 1954 he died at the 14th kilometre of Bà Khẽ beyond the Lũng Lô pass, while on a live sketch assignment. His death so close to battle, one that would mark a turning point in the war, made him a national hero.
In November of that year, his paintings made at that time were awarded at the National Fine Arts Exhibition.
In 1985 a street in Ho Chi Minh City was named after him and, in 1995, a street in Hanoi was named after him.
Corinne de Ménonville, Vietnamese Painting: From Tradition to Modernity, ARHIS: Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire, Paris
Il drago e la Farfalla, Arte Contemporanea in Vietnam, 2006, Gangemi Editore, Rome
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi
Private international collections
1931 – Exposition Coloniale, Paris, France
1932 – Exhibition of French Painters’ Association, Paris, France
1954 – awarded at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1996 – Paris – Hanoi – Saigon: L’aventure de l’art moderne au Viêt Nam, Pavillon des Arts, Paris, France
2006 – Il drago e la Farfalla, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, Italy
2013 – Du Fleuve Rouge au Mékong, Musée Cernuschi, Paris, France
1935-1938 – Taught at Sisowath School in Cambodia
1939 – Began teaching at École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine
1946 – Appointed director of the new Vietnam Fine Arts College
1947 – Leader of the Cultural Group for the National Good in the 10th zone
1950 – Director of the Central Fine Arts College in Nghĩa Quân, Yên Phú
1951 – Reinstated as director of the Vietnam Fine Arts College
1931 – Won the silver medal at the Exposition Coloniale for his oil painting A letter, Paris, France
1932 – Received an honorary award at the French painters’ exhibition
1985 – A street in Ho Chi Minh City was named after him
1995 – A street in Hanoi was named after him.
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
 Tô Ngọc Vân biography compiled by independent research