Stef with the late Peter Ustinov, a "happy" customer

In a country still reeling from decades of war, destruction, turmoil and genocide, artist Stephane “Stef” Delapree is doing something different. He’s painting pictures of happy people. Happy Cambodian people.

Stef is a happy guy who paints happy paintings. He paints pictures of happy monks, happy mothers hanging out in hammocks, happy women drying laundry, happy people driving motorcycles, happy guys bicycling bags of rice. The list goes on. But they're all happy. Happy, happy, happy. His work shows the joy of life, he calls it “jollity in painting”, and you can't help but feel good when you look at his work. It’s a unique, positive style that seems to please many people.


Born in Paris in 1956, Stef moved to Quebec with his family when he was five. Early on, he started to draw and, by age six, he was sketching kings, queens and Roman gladiators. Growing up surrounded by literature, he knew he wanted to be an either an artist, a painter, a writer or a singer. Art books fascinated him, especially those on Da Vinci and Botticelli. As he grew older, he was influenced by Matisse, Chagall, Gauguin, Modigliani and Fernand Léger. Today, his happy painting shows traces of Primitivism, Naïvism, even Fauvism. People also see traces of Gauguin in his work, as well as that of the Di Rosa brothers, leaders of the neo-figurative French group of artists, and Herge, the cartoonist.

Stef is entirely untutored. He was “discovered” by Anne-Sylvie Charest, an art history student from Québec, who believed in his talent, and “pushed” him to produce a series of paintings on one theme, Cambodia.

Stef says he feels a “link” between his work and that of Henri Rousseau, who also received no formal artistic training but made a contribution to avant-garde art and had a naïve vision of his work. He also sees similarities between his work and that of African artist Chéri Samba (whose cartoons provide a vivid picture of contemporary African life) and the American artist Anna Moses. Moses, because of their lack of realistic perspective, was described as a naïve or “primitive” artist, but she drew paintings that had a highly decorative quality. She was similar to Stef in the childlike innocence and clarity that characterized her paintings, making them popular both with art-world collectors in search of an authentic vision and a wide range of art lovers.


Although the first piece of artwork Stef sold was actually a sculpture, he began as a cartoonist, eking out an existence selling reproductions in Artist’s Alley, beside the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. Then, whenever he raised a little bit of money, he’d travel: Canada’s west coast, Mexico, Central America, Europe, Afghanistan, Morocco … even Holland to India on the Magic Bus.

Then he had an epiphany of sorts. He realized he needed to do something with his life. He didn’t really have a career, he didn’t have any money, and he was going nowhere fast. So, in 1993, he packed his bags and returned to Asia with his art supplies. His last stop was Phnom Penh, where his brother Pascal was working with LICADHO, a human-rights NGO. This connection proved fortuitous, since it allowed Stef to get a job illustrating the new Cambodian constitution for the UN.


He decided he’d stay on in Phnom Penh and see whether he could make a living as an artist. He got some work with UNICEF and the UNDP doing booklets, logos, educational cartoons and poster illustrations.

Next thing, he was commissioned to do his first mural, a four-metre pastoral scene on canvas. In fact, Stef didn’t think he could do it, so he set a price that he was sure that HEKS, the Swiss NGO, would balk at. But they went for it. With the help of a student from Cambodia’s School of Fine Arts, Stef completed the job. Soon afterwards, he had his first showing of happy paintings at the New Art Gallery in Phnom Penh and, within a couple of hours, he sold the 20 paintings he had on display. Then, in 1995, as his fame and popularity grew, he decided to open up the first Happy Painting Gallery in the Sofitel Cambodiana (now the Cambodiana).

Most of Stef’s paintings are done with acrylics, oils and ink on saa paper, and usually measure 77 x 55 centimetres. His clients have included royalty, diplomats, cabinet ministers, writers, actors, other luminaries and discerning travellers from around the world. His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk himself is a patron, and Her Highness Princess Christine Norodom Sirivudh collects his work.


Stef uses the handcrafted mulberry paper traditionally used for Buddhist texts and paintings. Over 600 years ago, in the mountains of northeastern Burma, the Karen hill people found a remarkable bark that naturally peeled from the trunk of the tall broad leafed mulberry tree at the end of every rainy season. Thus began the craft of making natural paper without destroying or cutting down trees. The Karen villages called this the saa tree, and for years hilltribe papermakers have been practising their craft in the mountains of northern Thailand. They still use natural dyes and, as did their ancestors centuries ago, lay their paper in the sun to dry. The process is time consuming and complicated but, because it’s acid free, saa paper is strong, flexible and extremely durable.

The Museum of Angouleme, in France, has some of Stef’s early pieces, as does the Art Museum of Quebec, in Canada. The Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs has funded Stef’s work over the years. He has also been commissioned to do work for the governments of Canada, El Salvador, France and Cambodia. His work has appeared in private collections in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America.

Besides his paintings, Stef makes limited-edition silk-screens, postcards, posters, baby bibs, T-shirts and happy statues. He’s currently working on a custom order canvas for the World Food Programme, Cambodia, and the Asian Development Bank has asked him to illustrate eight report covers. He’s hoping to find a partner in Thailand, the USA or France, and then make and distribute happy paintings and products in those countries as well. Today, Happy Painting locations in Phnom Penh include the Cambodiana Hotel, the FCCC building, the airport (both the international and domestic departure lounges) and the Sunway Hotel. In Siem Reap, Stef has shops in the Angkor Century Hotel and in the Old Market Quarter.


No one should be surprised at Stef’s success. He comes from a fascinating family. His great grandfather was an admiral in the French Navy and his grandfather, Louis Delaprée, was a war reporter and screenwriter who used to work for Paris Soir — indeed, he helped found the paper. He covered the Spanish War, and was killed at age 36 when his plane was shot down on his way back to Paris. He wrote a book called Mourir à Madrid, which was later made into a film. And Stef’s dad was a professor of literature. Today, Stef lives in Phnom Penh with his young son Raphaël, and his two brothers also live in the Khmer capital. Pascal still works with LICADHO, and Xavier is an IT consultant.

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