Thirty-five paintings by Nguyen Tu Nghiem never before seen by the public are on display at an exhibition at Ngan Pho Gallery in downtown Hanoi.

They belong to a collection owned by artist Mai Anh, who fell in love with Nghiem's paintings a long time ago.

The exhibition is only the second of Nghiem's work, following his first show back in 1984.

Nghiem secluded himself from society many years ago, leading many to wonder whether he was still alive.

The idea for the exhibition came to Mai Anh and her husband, the owners of Ngan Pho Gallery, about one month before the Lunar New Year.

They intended to hold the exhibition on the occasion of the New Year and invite artist Nghiem to appear and talk about his paintings, but Nghiem was sick and they had to cancel their plans.

"The public has shown interest in the exhibition, and someone asked me why the exhibition was delayed for a few days," said Mai Anh.

The paintings on display were created from pastels, chalk and pencil from the 1960s to 2014.

"Material is not important to Nghiem. He can use different materials including lacquer, oil and silk," said Mai Anh.

The painting entitled De Vang (Golden Goat) is the latest addition to the collection, and was created back in 2003. The painting was the most interested by his family and they didn't want to sell it.

"Looking at Nghiem's paintings, I feel peaceful and relaxed. The paintings look pure and innocent, like they are drawn by a five-year old."

Collecting Nghiem's paintings has been a labour of love over the last seven years. Mai Anh and her husband wanted to meet him, so they visited his house with a friend and talked about their interest in buying his paintings.

However, they were turned down by his family because they were unsure about their intentions. However, a few years later, his partner came to meet Mai Anh and agreed to sell the paintings.

"Maybe it was because she was found about our work at Ngan Pho Gallery, and realised we were genuine," said Mai Anh's husband, Le Trung Thanh.

The exhibition is small but features themes that inspired Nghiem, such as ancient dances, the Vietnamese zodiac animals and Thuy Kieu – Kim Trong, two characters from Vietnamese masterpiece The Tale of Kieu.

Nghiem was born in 1922 to a Confucian scholar's family in Nam Dan district in the central province of Nghe An.

He graduated from the Indochina College of Fine Arts in 1946, where he studied under Joseph Inguimberty, Nam Son and To Ngoc Van.

Nghiem went on to join the resistance movement and moved to Viet Bac (northern Vietnam) revolutionary base. He was a teacher at the Resistance School of Fine Arts based in Dai Tu district, Thai Nguyen province in 1950.

After the French were defeated in 1954, he returned to Hanoi and taught at the Industrial Fine Arts College until 1960, after which he became more secluded and worked as an independent artist.

He was a member of the Vietnam Fire Arts Association from 1957 to 1983. His works are displayed at the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts and the Moscow State Museum of the East.

In 2013, his lacquer painting Thanh Giong (Saint Giong) was exhibited at Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the UK.

He was awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize in 1996.

The exhibition will run until Thursday at 82 Hang Gai Street.-VNA