Bao Nguyen, dreamed of being a scientist but life took him on a different path, where he discovered the art he has now been practicing for 53 years. While studying at the Atomic Physics Department of the University, young Bao Nguyen fell sick and was unable to sit his graduation exams. One day, walking the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Nguyen stopped to watch a painter and felt an immediate connection to the work.
The artist said: “I asked many artists to teach me how to draw portraits, but no one was willing, so I taught myself”. He learned to paint by sketching portraits of his family members. Once when visiting relatives, he was asked to draw a portrait of a deceased loved one. He took a toothpick and from a small, old portrait photograph he created the portrait. Many people commented on this piece saying that it was very ‘soulful’. This moved the young man and that year, 1960, student Bao Nguyen decided to give up his university study to open a portrait painting shop.
The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of portraiture, according to artisan Bao Nguyen it replaced photographic art. In the old days, Vietnamese families often brought photos of dead relatives to portraiture shops for portraits to put on altars. It become something part of Hanoian culture. Artist Bao Nguyen recalled, “In the old days, photography was a luxury, so Hanoians preserved their memories in paintings”.
According to the artist, a portrait must capture the ‘soul’ of the person you are drawing. The elderly portrait painter said that the ‘soul’ can be reflected in the eyes, the mouth or the hands of people.
One of the greatest challenges in his artistic career, he said, was when a relative of the great Vietnamese educator Vu Tong Phan asked him to draw a portrait of Phan without any photos, just his poems. He searched everywhere for materials on Phan to help him paint. He recalled what helped him, “I asked my family to read the poems of Vu Tong Phan while I was drawing. Listening to his work was miraculous, as I understood more his work the portrait of Phan gradually appeared”.
In 2000, 14 his works were displayed at a great exhibition in Japan, which attracted many visitors.
Everyday, many people visit the portraiture shop, No. 47 Hang Ngang Street to contemplate Bao Nguyen’s portrait paintings.