Restoring the National Treasure of the ‘Little Thuy’ Painting is a Labor of Love

The restored work, which received national treasure status in 2013, is currently on display on the second floor of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Vietnam in Hanoi.

In addition to using professional lighting for display, ‘Em Thuy’ and other paintings, the artifacts are kept in a room with temperatures between 20-25 degrees Celsius and 50-55% humidity throughout the day. day and all night.

‘Em Thuy’ painted by Tran Van Can is on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts of Vietnam in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Hieu Nhan

In 2003, many degraded works of art needed to be restored.

‘Em Thuy’, created in 1943, was chosen as the first piece to be restored. At the time, the image’s surface was obscured by dust, soot, smoke, and insect droppings. The canvas was blistering, peeling and warping. The old paint also suffered cracks while some sections had peeled off due to the hot and humid environmental conditions.

Caroline Fry – painting conservator from the Grimwade Center for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, Australia – was invited to Vietnam to restore ‘Em Thuy’ in 2004.

The restoration process took place in the preservation laboratory of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Vietnam, comprising seven steps prescribed by international regulations and standards.

First, the expert examined the current state of the original paintwork and took photos of it. The next step was to use a heated knife to smooth out the paint chips and place silicone coated paper on top, which would not adhere to the paint surface.

The third step was to use a cotton swab dipped in triammonium citrate the solution to gently remove the varnish.

The expert discovered a layer of opaque varnish under the surface of the stains, suggesting previous restoration attempts. This meant that the paint had to be removed using chemicals. A B72 paraloid solution has been applied to the surface to protect the original artist’s strokes. She also used a broom to remove dust from the back of the painting.

The fourth step was to treat the peeling paint. Fry applied a protective coat of paint, restoring parts with watercolors and specialty pigments.

Thuy’s face – the soul of the image – had suffered extensive peeling and damage, requiring special attention. Fry used watercolor to fill in the gaps, which will make it easier to remove in the future, then used synthetic resin. The final coating had the exact same color, shine and texture as the original.

The fifth step was to create a new frame and repair surface tears with plastic stickers.

Additionally, she repaired and strengthened the picture frame, especially the corner joints, to provide stability before placing the painting in a new glass frame.

The last two steps included taking photos and writing reports. The whole process took the expert four months.

The work was handed over to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum on June 28, 2004.

Currently, the inspection and conservation of paintings and artifacts are carried out regularly. If a problem is detected, the staff will report it to the repair and restoration center for immediate treatment.

A close-up of Em Thuy's painting after restoration.  Photo courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts of Vietnam

A close up of the ‘Em Thuy’ painting after restoration. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts of Vietnam

‘Em Thuy’ is one of the most remarkable portraits of modern painting in the country. The artwork depicts Thuy, a real eight-year-old girl, with large round black eyes, plump lips, chubby cheeks, and parted hair staring straight at the opposite person.

The little girl was seated on the left side of the picture with her hands clasped in her lap. The curvaceous brown rattan chair creates a balanced composition for the table. Light-colored clothes harmonize with the pale yellow wall behind.

According to the Department of Cultural Heritage, Tran Van Can’s works bear the influence of the typical European-style layout of the early 20th century. The ‘Em Thuy’ painting is recognized as a national treasure because it is unique and has been recognized by historical researchers. The work represents the art of realistic representation, as well as the genre of Vietnamese portrait painting in the early 20th century. This work also helps to reflect the image of Vietnamese society before the August Revolution against French and Japanese colonial rule in August 1945.

The character in the photo is Minh Thuy – the granddaughter of painter Tran Van Can. One day in 1943, when he saw his granddaughter wearing a pink silk Ha Dong shirt, he told her to sit down and be a model for him to draw. At that time, Minh Thuy was studying at the École Brieux primary school for girls.

It took several months for the painter to complete this masterpiece.

The work was first shown at the Hanoi Exhibition in 1943. The painting later helped Tran Van Can win first prize at the Khai Tri Tien Duc Association (AFIMA -the Association for the Intellectual and Moral Formation of the Annamites).

Later, because of the war, the family was evacuated, so the job was lost.

In 1964, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum bought paintings from the family of photographer Do Huan for 300 VND.

At that time, the salary of newly graduated civil servants was only 64 VND per month. The paint was then peeled off, marbled and had to be placed in a special place of preservation.

Thuy is now 87 in real life, living with her children and grandchildren in Hanoi. She suffered from memory loss and many illnesses of old age, not remembering when she was eight years old and sitting in the chair as a model for Can.

Expert Caroline Fry once said she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the painting when she first saw it.

“Even in poor condition, the artwork still exudes charm and it’s no exaggeration to call it the Mona Lisa of Vietnam,” she said.

Tran Van Can (1910-1994) was from Bac Ninh province. He graduated from the promotion of the seventh promotion (1931-1936) of the College of Fine Arts of Indochina.

The painter received the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Art in 1996 and many other professional awards.

About Catharine C. Bean

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