Executed in 1998.
Marlborough, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
"The most outstanding characteristic of Chen Yifei's paintings is the tranquility and stillness. His realistic painting style is infused with traditional Chinese aesthetics. In depicting the landscapes, rivers and lakes of southern China, or in portraying a beautiful female figure with vivid expression, the artist's pursuit is clearly indicated: to imbue the painting with a Chinese spirit by using western painting techniques." Ma Chengyuan, The Homecoming of Chen Yifei's Retrospective Exhibition, The Shanghai Museum, 1996, p. 11
Chen Yifei was born in a remote village in the Zhejiang province of Zhenhai, China in 1946. Four months after his birth, the Chen family moved to Shanghai, where the artist would later study at the Shanghai Art College. Growing up at a particular moment in the second half of the twentieth century, Chen benefited from an education that was unique in modern art history. Where even today art students in the West study primarily their own culture's artistic and stylistic development, Chen and his colleagues learned from both Eastern and Western traditions.
Chen Yifei studied oil painting under the last group of Chinese art instructors who had studied in Paris. During his years at the art academy, he admired the work of European Impressionists and their way of playing with color and light. His appreciation and highly personal development of these luminous effects is evident in Spring Willow, Bridge and Boat, Suzhou, and Hudson River Valley (Lot 24-26). Chen pictures his world in quiet, relaxing tones, a vision originating in ancient China with the birth of ink painting on silk. In the extensive literature on these revered works, the first ink paintings are referred to as "poems without words," which might equally apply to Chen's oils of the modern world.
We often see bridges spanning canals in Chen’s works, as in Spring Willow and Bridge and Boat, Suzhou. The artist is here guided by another tradition from his pictorial past. The bridge is of great significance in Chinese history, illustrating the union of man and nature and filling the void that separates man from the world around him. The seventeenth century artists’ manual The Mustard Seed Garden stated, “[B]ridges may be drawn to sustain the continuity of the ch'i [life force]. They would be seldom missing from pictures.” Bridges were an integral part of life in Suzhou, serving as rendezvous points for friends and perches from which to admire the city as much as for practical paths of getting from one place to another. Painted with an eye no less loving for its personal familiarity with the scene before it, Bridge shares an appreciation of an intimate, simple world garnered from decades of crossing bridges and walking ancient roads.
In spite of early and sustained recognitions of his talents in China, Chen longed to see firsthand the Western works he had studied and he became one of the first artists from China to receive permission to study and work in New York. Although his realist style was all but ignored at the time, he defied the odds, established himself in what would be his adopted home for a decade, and received critical praise for his first solo exhibition in New York in 1983. Painting elegant American and Chinese musicians as well as lush countryside scenery, his diverse practical training had prepared him to work in this new environment, but it was his steadfast commitment to his realist-inspired vision that eventually led to his international success.
Hudson River Valley is a striking example of Chen’s embrace of his adopted environment. Devoid of the overt Romanticism of the Hudson River School painters, who were likewise drawn to the beauty of Upstate New York more than a hundred years before, Chen’s painting portrays the colors and textures of fall in a manner that is no less inspiring for its matter-of-fact painterly economy. In subsequent years, Chen began to return to Shanghai frequently and to divide his time between East and West, a personal manifestation of his principles as a painter.
Among Chen’s masterpieces is Maids of Honor (1998, Lot 24), fleshed out in the style for which he is best known. While the young Chinese women in the painting are exotic to Western eyes, particularly in their richly-textured setting seen from an unusual birds-eye vantage, they are mysterious for another reason: their beauty is subtly distorted without being destroyed, in a manner reminiscent of Jean-Dominique Ingres. Chen’s painting invites us into an irrational, subtly absurd space in which the female figures overlap in implausible ways yet seem viable nevertheless within the artist’s rich pictorial world, one whose color language and texture pays homage to the decorative patterning of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Chen here demonstrates his understanding of beauty’s seductiveness – and the means by which master painters are capable of enhancing it. Maids of Honor deploys the artist’s deep understanding of Eastern and Western traditions and negotiates their successful union. It is this achievement that has made Chen Yifei’s body of work so attractive to the international community.
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