NEW YORK — The artist Vu Cao Dam (1908–2000) came to Paris as an 18-year-old art student from Vietnam and soon became enamored of the French capital, with its European charms and many art museums. He spent nearly 20 years in Paris before settling in the south of France, and his work clearly shows influences of his native and adopted countries.
Like his fellow Vietnamese painter, Le Pho, who also became a celebrated artist in Paris, Vu Cao Dam has been a rising star in the art market. There has been renewed interest in his art since his passing, most notably during the last few years. His early paintings on silk and especially images of his favorite subject matter, elegant Vietnamese women, are sought after.
“Vu Cao Dam has come to prominence in the last two years, although his paintings have been on the market for decades,” said the Director of European Art for Hindman, Madalina Lazen. “His works, together with his compatriot Le Pho, are very much sought after by Asian collectors, with the highest prices having been achieved in Hong Kong.”
He was often inspired by Vietnamese culture and literature, such as the book The Tale of Kiều, from which he recreates a scene of a young man climbing a wall and offering two gold bracelets and a silk scarf to a young woman he hopes to marry. In the painting, Vu Cao Dam instead substitutes a jade ring for the gold. In some Asian cultures, jade signifies a pure and beautiful woman as well as a connection between physical and spiritual planes.
Among the top-selling Vu Cao Dam paintings on LiveAuctioneers is an impressionistic 1978 oil on canvas, L’anneau de jade (jade ring), which attained $80,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Hindman in May 2023. The painting shows a man and a woman on opposite sides of a wall. “L’anneau de jade is a beautiful and romantic composition featuring a courting couple. The color scheme is very desirable, as well as the fairly large scale,” she said.
The painting is nearly monochromatic and blue is the dominant color, but astute viewers will note the emphasis on red and white. This is no accident, as these three colors make up the French flag. This artwork has added value thanks to its provenance to the Wally Findlay Galleries of Palm Beach, Florida, which signed a deal in the 1960s with the artist to exclusively represent him in the United States. The gallery has done much to promote Vu Cao Dam in this part of the world and as a result, his paintings are coveted in Asian, European and American markets. The 1960s period of his paintings were even dubbed “the Findlay era.”
“Vu Cao Dam’s early paintings from the 1930s-40s on silk are the most sought after and are usually only seen on the Hong Kong market. The record achieved for one such painting was $1 million. Generally, large compositions with multiple figures are most desirable,” Lazen explained. “I believe the reason we are seeing such results for Vu Cao Dam’s works is the very hot Hong Kong market, which, in turn, points collectors and dealers to the American market.”
By the 1960s, Vu Cao Dam was ensconced with his family in a villa in southern France, and the art he made there shows the influence his surroundings had on him. Having traded busy city streets for open fields, hot summers and mild winters is reflected in these works, which are sun-drenched and have color palettes that favor pastels.
From this era comes a warm-toned scene painted in 1965, Le Printemps (Spring), which handily outperformed its $15,000-$25,000 estimate when it achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Hindman in September 2020. “Le Printemps features maternal tenderness, another one of the artist’s strongest themes,” Lazen said.
Vu Cao Dam is best known for figural paintings, and seldom did he paint landscapes devoid of people. According to the Wally Findlay Galleries website, his paintings often featured figures carrying flowers, holding small children or leading horses, as in a 1978 oil on canvas of two horses, Les chevaux, which brought $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Shapiro Auctions in July 2021.
Tender scenes of families are also among his recurring themes and one that collectors avidly seek out. Les deux enfants (two babies) depicts a mother and her two young children outside and surrounded by flowers, almost as if they were part of a bouquet. This vivid and sunny 1964 oil painting sold for well above its high estimate to bring $49,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in May 2021.
His sensitive brushwork is apparent in his depictions of women, whom he exalts in his canvases to emphasize their femininity. Their cheeks are always pale pink, a detail which in ancient Vietnam symbolized youth and female beauty. Surrounded by a pale white and yellow aura of light, a young woman, deep in prayer, is depicted dressed in pink robes and sitting on a bed of white flowers in Divinite. The painting realized $42,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Revere Auctions in July 2022.
The artist initially began sculpting before taking up painting, but he continued to sculpt throughout his lifetime. During World War II, when Paris became an occupied city, Vu Cao Dam stayed behind, even though he sent his family to the safety of the country. He continued making art with whatever materials he could scrape up, and it was during this era that he created several fine terracotta sculptures. While it is not known what period it dates from, one of his finely modeled terracotta busts, Tête Terracotta, took $46,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023 at Heritage Auctions. The attractive work, mounted on a wooden base, stands 12 ¾in tall.
Prized in his lifetime, Vu Cao Dam’s delicately toned and airy compositions that bridge Western and Vietnam art traditions have been steadily gaining interest as collectors rediscover his artwork.