The China Life Magazine, July 1947, Vol.10
Among the pioneers of Chinese modern art, four men earned the title of "The Four Great Academy Presidents": Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, Liu Haisu, and Yan Wenliang. These artists were revered in the early Republican Era due to their effective stewardship of the Hangzhou National School of Fine Art, the Art Department of Central University, the Shanghai Academy of Arts, and the Soochow College of Art respectively. Of the four Presidents, Yan Wenliang's surviving works are the fewest, and those with clear provenance are even rarer. Winter Sunset (Lot 1017), featured in this spring's Evening Auction, is the largest Yan Wenliang oil painting to ever appear on the auction market, and in fact the only oil painting by Yan of length or width greater than one hundred centimetres in public auction records. Yet more remarkable is that this work appeared in the pages of China Life magazine in July 1947. The page printed with this work's image, as well as the front and back covers of that issue of the magazine, are readily available reference materials, providing invaluable documentation of the history of this painting. In terms of both aesthetic and historical value, Winter Sunset is unquestionably a museum-grade work of art.
Yan Wenliang, who taught himself oil painting at a young age, founded the Suzhou College of Art in 1922. In 1928, encouraged and assisted by Xu Beihong, he travelled to France to study art at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He delved deeply into the study of Western classical art, paying particular attention to colour, perspective, and form. In this way, he laid the groundwork for his distinctive style of extremely detailed landscape painting. Yan once said that he seeks to be meticulous in his creativity, and to use patience, perseverance, and self-discipline to fully imbue his artwork with rich and pure visual experience. Winter Sunset brilliantly showcases the artist's strengths. In this mid-winter scene of a snowy forest at dusk, the straight trees and slanting branches surround a narrow path that glimmers in the fading light, forming a depth of a perspective that ingeniously guides the viewer's gaze to the simple dwellings in the distance. The setting sun on the left side of the canvas penetrates through a tangerine mist of glowing clouds, resulting in an atmosphere that is anything but chilly. Rather, the viewer savours the cosiness of the image, discovering the vitality hidden within the snow, which not only reflects the sun's golden rays but also reveals green hints of spring. The grass peeking through the snow cover awaits the departure of winter and the arrival of spring, when living things will reawaken and begin to thrive again.
Yan Wenliang's oil paintings of landscapes are an extension and expansion of Chinese traditional landscape painting. His lifelong study of perspective and colour were an important chapter in the modernization and internationalization of Chinese art. The splendid and penetrating colours of Winter Sunset lend the painting a rich sense of mass and a life-like vividness. The compositional technique of using the setting sun to light the tableau is particularly reminiscent of the work of John Atkinson Grimshaw, the great English painter of the Victorian era. Grimshaw's paintings, which feature rigorous perspective and exquisite modelling, possess the typical characteristics of realism. Grimshaw also used light sources within his canvas (like street lamps, sunshine, or moonlight) to create atmosphere and produce Romantic and Impressionistic aesthetic beauty. The peerless detail and lively bearing of Winter Sunset helped to mark a new path in the twentieth century for the thousand-year-old tradition of Chinese landscape painting. Few works of Yan Wenliang's have appeared on the auction market, and all have been of outstanding quality. Because large paintings by Yan are hard to find, a painting of twenty-four by thirty-five centimetres – approximately one-fourth the size of Winter Sunset – recently sold for HKD 4,000,000. This unique masterpiece with a clear and well-documented provenance is a highlight of the Sotheby's Spring Auction and an extremely rare opportunity for collectors!
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