Ham Nghi: Vietnamese Prince in Exile

self-portrait Hàm Nghi Vietnamese history

Misty landscapes at twilight in gentle colours of purple, violet, lavender, grey, blue and gold, characterise the paintings of Hàm Nghi, former emperor of Vietnam. L’Art en Exil, an exhibition  at the Musée Des Arts Asiatiques in Nice, focuses on the work of a 19th-century prince who was banished from his homeland of Vietnam and sent into exile in Algeria.

The exhibition of brings together, for the first time, more than 150 works of art, objects, letters and documents from private collections and Parisian museums, that reveal a chapter of history and of history of art hitherto unknown to the French public. It draws on the work of the emperor’s great-great-grand-daughter Amandine Dabat, curator of the exhibition and author of a doctoral thesis published in 2019, concerning the life and artistic output of Hàm Nghi. It recounts a poignant story of a patriotic painter and sculptor who sought refuge in his art and consecrated his life to it.

Hàm Nghi was the Eighth Emperor of the Ngyun Dynasty

Crowned at the age of just 13 years old, Hàm Nghi was the eighth of 13 emperors of the Nguyen dynasty that ruled in Hué, Annam, from 1802-1945. At this time, Vietnam, not yet a unified country, consisted of Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre and Cochin-China in the south. During the French colonial regime of 1887-1954, these three states, together with Cambodia and Laos, were united to form The Indochinese Union, with its capital in Hanoi, a federation that would end in 1954.

While the French exploited the region’s many resources they also actively encouraged the arts in many different forms, including the restoration of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Champa in Vietnam and the creation of art schools. They built elegant cities such as Hanoi and Phnom Penh which were modelled on Baron Haussman’s Paris and each was referred to as the Paris of Asia. The Nguyen capital at Hué was a highly cultured place of rich artistic and Confucian traditions, including painting, calligraphy, lacquerware, silk painting, sculpture, music, dance, opera, poetry, ceramics, wood carving, embroidery and silk weaving, among many others, which the French admired and maintained.

Hàm Nghi (1871-1943), Prince of Annam, was born Phuc Ung Lich in August 1871 in Hué, into the artistic milieu at the royal palace, part of the imperial city built by the Nguyen emperors on the evocatively named Perfume River. He ascended the throne on 2 August 1884, but he reigned for only one year, until 1885. His uncle, Emperor Tu Duc (1829-1883), having no heirs, had adopted several successors, of whom two were older brothers of Hàm Nghi. The court was politically divided between those supporting a French presence and those resisting it. The French had already colonised the south, Cochin-China, and Cambodia, and were expanding into Annam and Tonkin and a treaty of protectorate was signed in Hué in August 1883.

Exiled to Algeria

However, in 1885, following the failure of an insurrection, the Can Vuong, ‘Save The King,’ against General Herni de Courcy, Protector of Annam, and French colonial rule, Emperor Hàm Nghi was captured. The prince, effectively a pawn on the complex political chessboard of French Indochina, as the French considered him as leader of anti-colonial resistance and a political threat, was sent into exile to Algeria, a French colony, in December 1888. Replaced on the throne by his brother Dong Khanh, Hàm Nghi would spend 55 years in exile,

The young Hàm Nghi landed in Algiers on 13 January, 1889, weakened by malaria during the long sea voyage. He was installed in a villa on the heights above the city in El Biar, just outside Algiers, where he would eventually have a neo-Moorish house built, which became known as La Residence Gia Long (after the first of the Nguyen emperors). Still only a teenager, he led a simple life, but was placed under guard and constant surveillance that would last his whole life. His mail was monitored and all communication with Indochina was prohibited. But he was given a pension from the general budget of Indochina and was able to create a home in his villa.

During this time in Algeria he learned to speak French and also, apparently, to ride a bicycle – unusual at the time. He learned photography, studied literature and began drawing. A French Captain de Vialar, in charge of his supervision, discovered the prince’s drawings one day. He suggested that the artist Marius Reynaud (1860-1935) come twice a week to give the prince lessons.

Becoming a Painter

Marius Reynaud, born in Marseille in 1860, was a pupil of Dominique Antoine Magaud, from the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Reynaud had also worked under the direction of Edouard Detaille, an academic painter regarded as the ‘semi-official artist’ of the French army, portraying military life. Reynaud, having assisted in Magaud’s painting The Siege of Belfort, received an award in 1879 at the Marseille Exhibition, then went to Algeria in 1881 for his military service and settled there. His views of the port of Algiers and the surrounding area made him famous. Hàm Nghi also decorated the pavilion of the Ottoman-era Palace of the Dey, the Regent of Algiers, and the Chamber of Commerce. From 1887, he exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Française where he became a member.

Under such august tutelage, the young prince became passionate about art. In the ‘Orientalist’ style, as taught by Reynaud, he painted en plein air, out of doors, and included scenes of his garden, the Roman gates at Timgad, twilight over the sea, the ruins of Constantine, the latania palm forests of El Kantari, the white dome of the tomb of Marabi and local children. In Algiers, he also frequented the Orientalist painter George Rocherosse (1859-1938) as well as the sculptor Leon Fourquet (1841-1939).

One of the exhibits, Route de Mustapha, reveals in pastel the gentle colours of the landscape, perhaps at the end of the day, with the light still casting a luminosity, showing in technique the influences of Impressionism on Hàm Nghi. Le Vieil Olivier is an alluring composition of softest violet, purples and moss green of the shadows beneath the old olive tree. These are images of peace and tranquillity. With its Mediterranean climate, the light of Algeria has the same compelling qualities of southern France which attracted so many artists. Thus, the prince found in his art a refuge, a personal space for reflection, for serenity, creating an art form that enriched the life that had been impoverished by the loss of his homeland.

As Amandine Dabat, curator, says: ‘When he was exiled, Hàm Nghi did not know he would stay in exile until his death. The first years, he was wondering if and when he could come back to Vietnam. Every winter, at the anniversary date of his exile, he was depressed. I think that he hoped to go back to his country for about 15 years’.

A New Way of Life

In his new way of life, he frequented French high society in Algiers and gradually managed to circulate letters in which he showed no political inclinations, but was able to receive food and objects from Indochina. His correspondence shows his difficulties in communicating in French throughout his life and he did not master the Romanised script (quoc ngu), introduced by French missionairies, which became official in Vietnam in the early 20th century, replacing their own traditional Chinese style characters.

However, from 1893 Hàm Nghi was granted permission to travel to France every two years. In 1895, it was reported in a publication La Fraternité that he had arrived in Paris, dressed in his traditional costume, which he always wore. He spent many hours in the Musée du Louvre. Here, in Paris, he formed relationships with artists and intellectuals of his time. In 1899, he met Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and subsequently worked in the Parisian studio of the master, in rue de l’Université, where he learned about moulding, casting, patinas, enlargement. The two men maintained a correspondence between 1899 and 1910.

In 1900, he met Judith Gautier (1845-1917), poet, writer, sculptor, sinologist, Oriental scholar and eldest daughter of Theophile Gautier, poet and literary critic. She formed a deep attachment to him and a lasting friendship ensued based on their reciprocal artistic exchanges. She was a connection to the East for him. She dedicated many poems to the prince and invited him several times to her home in Dinard, a pretty seaside resort in Brittany that became fashionable during the Belle Epoque era, where he painted seascapes.

His painting Falaises de Port Blanc shows his love of the coast, a rendition of a sky at dusk suffused with pale pinks and the varying hues of a deep blue sea and cliffs, reminiscent of Claude Monet’s paintings, an artist whose work influenced him. Instead of painting the sun itself, he chose instead to capture the myriad colours after it has set, with its variations on the landscape.

The Influence of Gaugin on Hàm Nghi

From 1904, Hàm Nghi, having discovered the work of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) in Paris, employed the saturated hues and flatter planes of image of the artist he grew to admire. Another painting Sans Titre, evokes Impressionism in both form and content with its tall, elegant poplar trees, so reminiscent of Van Gogh, in a landscape of variegated greenery illuminated by a soft iridescent golden light tinged with subtle shades at the end of the day. It was through the vocabulary of Impressionism that he achieved his finest work, both in France and in Algeria.

His evocative landscapes rarely have any figures in them, perhaps hinting at a loneliness and yearning that he felt in exile. Amandine Dabat believes he painted French landscapes with a Vietnamese soul. In a letter to Monsieur de Gondrecourt, an admirer, in 1897, the prince wrote: ‘These works form part of my life: I see in my pictures the vicissitudes of my sad thoughts, my joy and a thousand nuances …. and they are a consolation’.

In June 1904, Hàm Nghi exhibited 10 pastel pictures at the Musée Guimet in Paris. Later that year he married a French woman, Marcelle Laloë, daughter of the President of the French Appeals Court of Algiers. As Dr Dabat reflects: ‘When he understood that he would stay in exile in Algiers, he decided to marry a French woman, to have children, at least a son. He never talked about his past in Vietnam to his family and friends’.

Hàm Nghi Builds a neo-Moorish House

He was able to acquire land in the town of El Biar where he then had his neo-Moorish house built. Here Hàm Nghi had a workshop where he could do his sculpture, painting and even furniture making. He enjoyed family life with Marcelle and their three children: two daughters, Nhu May (1905-1999) and Nhu Ly (1908-2005) and a son Minh Duc (1910-1990). His eldest daughter never married. Nhu Ly married a French aristocrat and had children. Minh Duc married a French woman, but had no children. He also had a son with his mistress, Gabrielle Capek, named Jean Capek (1922-1982).

In November 1911, out of friendship for Suzanne Meyer-Zundel, he exhibited at the Galerie Mantelet in Paris. Then, in November 1926, a substantial retrospective of his pastels, paintings and sculptures was dedicated to him at the Galerie Mantelet – Colette Weil in Paris, featuring 38 works in oils, 12 in pastel and 8 bronze statues.

While Hàm Nghi’s work shows a deep artistic sensitivity, it is not obviously Asian in any of its subject matter or materials, but he remained an ‘Oriental’ in the eyes of the French and his exhibitions were well received at the time. Although viewed as an artist by his intimate circle of friends, he did not seek public recognition, showing scant concern for signing and dating his works. A Russian writer, T L Sepkina-Kupernhic, who met him at the Gia Long Villa, reportedly urged him to exhibit in Paris, but the prince declined, declaring it would be a mistake for him to show his work. He considered his art as a private distraction, helping him to forget that he was a deposed sovereign in exile.

During his visits to France, he bought Chateau de la Losse in Thonac, Dordogne. When Hàm Nghi died in Algiers in 1944, he was initially buried there. But in 1965, Général de Gaulle organised, with his daughter, the transfer of his remains to Thonac, where he now lies in a simple grave. Vietnam would like his remains to be brought back to the imperial city of Hué, where many of the former Nguyen emperors are buried in beautiful tombs. But, as Dr Dabat admits, ‘the family want to keep him in France (even if Hàm Nghi himself wanted to be buried in Vietnam).’

Many of Hàm Nghi’s Paintings were Destroyed in a Fire

Many of Hàm Nghi’s  paintings were tragically destroyed when his house was burned down during a battle in Algeria in 1964. Today about 100 paintings and sculptures remain, in private collections and in museums, that he gifted to friends and family members. He never sold any of his work. One drawing is in the Musée Rodin, and two paintings, two pastels and one sculpture are in the Musée Cernuschi, in Paris. One painting, Decline of the Day, from 1915, was sold at auction in Paris in 2010 to a French collector. His works, transmitted and preserved by his relatives for several generations, have only recently entered museum collections.

This exhibition has, therefore, made it possible to discover the life and work of a man long forgotten. It was in his constant dedication to, and love of, art that Hàm Nghi was able to find a personal sense of freedom and to build a new life for himself during his half century of exile.


Until 26 June, 2022 Art in Exile at, Musée des Arts Asiatiques, Nice, arts-asiatiques.com