Lot 26
  • 26

Chen Yifei

8,800,000 - 12,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Chen Yifei
  • Maids of Honour
  • oil on canvas
  • 167.5 by 164.2 cm.; 66 by 64 5/8 in.
signed in Chinese and Pinyin; Marlborough Gallery Inc, New York and Marlborough Monaco labels affixed to the stretcher on the reverse, executed in 1998


Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York
Private Collection
Sotheby’s, New York, 20 September, 2006, lot 24
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Private Collection, Monte Carlo
Acquired by the present owner from the above


New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc, Chen Yifei – New Works, 8 December 1999  – 15 January 2000, pl. 14, cover
Monte Carlo, Marlborough Monaco, Hommage à Chen Yifei 1946 - 2005, 15 April - 15 June 2007, pp. 9


Chen Yifei – New Works, Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York, 1999, pl. 14, pp.46-47
Chen Yi Fei, Marlborough Fine Art, London, pp.124–127

Catalogue Note

Chen Yifei’s masterwork of romantic realism Maids of Honour

Among Chinese realist painters, Chen Yifei was a dazzling star. When China began reform, he was among the first artists travelling to America to pursue further studies. He was also the first to gain prominence. From his early depiction of social realist subjects, followed by western musicians of his American period, to the River-town series that attracted international accolade, the artist’s drive to constantly surpass himself in his quest for realism created wonders and revelations time after time. Starting in 1993, when he returned to China to resume his career, Chen launched his Old Dream at Sea series, and in Maids of Honour (Lot 26) a classical spirit encompasses East and West, at the same time incorporating modern elements allowing Eastern aesthetics to flourish. This is an essential work in Chen’s grand artistic scheme.

Maidens – Ladies – Beauties

Beginning in the 1990s, Chen considered himself not only a pure artist but also a social activist: he was eager to play a part in China’s ascendance, launching an art movement, coining the dictum “Great vision, great art.” One of the important links in the overall scheme is creating anew the image of the Chinese people. In the process, subjects in Chen’s paintings evolved from early social realist characters of labourers, farmers, students and soldiers to graceful and elegant classical maidens as in Maids of Honour.

The concept of “maiden” has had a long history in both Chinese and western cultures. There is a lilting turn of phrase in The Cry of the Osprey from the Book of Songs: “Fair and noble maid, a man seeks her.” Not only does this poetic line epitomize the fairer sex, but Han and Tang dynasty classics further delineate the moral codes for empresses and concubines of bygone eras. Dating from English medieval times, the term “Lady” is not only used as a simple noun but an honourable title associated with the Lord, a symbol of social standing. Humankind has praised womanhood ever since the beginning of civilization, and thousands of interpretations of female beauty have emerged: from Zhou Fang’s Tang dynasty ladies with adorned hair to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; from court ladies painted by Ingres to Fei Danxu’s renowned series, Twelve Ladies. Maids of Honour continues this heritage while also reinventing the lineage. These are portraits of modern Shanghai women embody the subtle elegance of classical China while possessing a contemporary aura that connects with viewers today.

In contrast to depictions of sitting or standing figures, Maids of Honour positions two women lying head to toe. Such an unusual composition adds to the narrative, extending the viewer’s imagination. Suggestive of the last Li Yu’s poetry (set to the tune-type Yihuzhu), “On the embroidered bed a guileless beauty leans,” this depiction of fragrant perfumes and resplendent rouges is also echoed in filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. Two beauties lying side by side, their bodies astride, should be a very intimate portrait. Facing opposite directions, they appear to be sensitive, shy maidens who only inhabit their boudoir, filled with conflicted feelings shared by their sex. The one wearing a yellow robe is deep in slumber, symbolizing the traditional morals of a gentle, docile woman. The one wearing light blue is looking afar, personnifying a spirit of the times, not wanting to be left behind, daring to break free. The intimacy between the two, however, seems to be viewed from the perspective of an adoring man projecting his own fanciful thoughts on his subjects. The nuances of closeness and the complexities in the composition are difficult to explain in words while more suggestive from visual images.

Chen Yifei was a graduate from the Shanghai Institute of Fine Arts, having studied under Xu Beihong and Konstantin Maximov’s student Yu Yunjie. His early training equipped him with excellent skills in drawing. Although he studied in America in the 1980s, avant-garde art did not crush his love for realistic painting. Quite the opposite, it spurred him on to find a new classicism. Pre-Raphaelites in 19th-century England preferred women who embodied both English traits and a sense of fashion, creating classical Victorian portraits. Chen Yifei’s maidens, although visually different, also capture a similar spirit.

Drawing – Photography – Film

In order to amplify the power of this painting, a golden sheen permeates Maids of Honour. Such ambience can be traced to Chen’s film output. Although the artist established his career as a painter, he involved himself in other media upon his return from America. Not only did he continue his realist oil paintings, he also delved into fashion, publishing and architecture. And the three films he directed—Old Dream at Sea, A Date at Dusk, Escape to Shanghai—chronicle turning points in the artist’s evolution in the 1990s. In his semi-autobiographical Old Dream at Sea, Chen Yifei not only directed but also played a role on screen. Within the hour-long film with minimal dialogue, Chen is seen wearing dark glasses, and through various combinations of camera filters, tungsten light and softbox techniques he created an orange-yellow hue infusing nostalgia, recollection, lament and a sense of reunion. Old Dream at Sea was released in 1993, and Chen began to use similar hues in his paintings around the same time, attesting to the fact that the artist’s search for new media also fed into his original medium.

Chen’s output in the 1990s contains a strong cinematic sense. If we say that his portraits of the previous decade of musicians are like frozen music, then Maids of Honour is frozen drama. Yet the strong play of light and chiaroscuro typical of Renaissance and classical art are combined with strong modernist traits. Apart from warm and plush colours, Maids of Honour presents a bird’s eye view, matching many of those Western classics that Chen had long admired. The hazy, mysterious atmosphere could also trace its inspiration from photography, as countless variations of aperture, exposure and depth provided Chen with new ideas. Adding a strong and determined au premier coup, the maidens in the painting seem real yet unreal, adding a surrealistic quality evocative of memory and fancy, even more of a dreamscape, all of which echo the theme of Old Dreams at Sea.

The way the camera lens attracted and inspired artists dated from a few centuries ago. The 17th-century realist painter Johannes Vermeer often employed camera obscura. As technology advances, the world as captured by the camera offers far more possibilities than what the human eye can see. Paul Delaroche once lamented that the advent of photography in the 19th century heralded the death of painting. Yet realist painting continues to thrive, absorbing elements from painting and photography as it forges new directions. In the past when we discuss Chen’s oil paintings, we tend to follow only one line of thought. Film played a very important role in the later periods of Chen’s life, and Maids of Honour is a fine example encompassing the cross-influence of multiple media.

Shanghai – China – the world

Renowned writer Yu Qiuyu once praised Chen with the following passage: “During the time when there was a gap in culture, he found that romance of a bygone era, that tranquillity of a Jiangnan afternoon, that longing for a flowing brook under a footbridge, soothing the restless eyes and souls of a generation … he’s touched the world with the beauty of China.” The Maids of Honour is a deep and subtle portrait, typical of Chen’s depiction of Shanghai women in his collective image of China. Chen was not alone in the post-Cultural Revolution period in practicing his art this way, yet his speed in conquering the Western world and his overwhelming success was remarkable. As with many Chinese who went overseas at that time, Chen first landed in America to experience the hard life of a foreign student. There he contemplated his own cultural identity, searching to find a position for Chinese painting in the world. Shanghai was the city most embracing of the outside world, providing the first glimpse of the other for both the East and the West. “Paris of the Orient” and “bustling metropolis of foreign settlements” are words of praise justifying Chen’s using his hometown to introduce Chinese realism to the world.

Maids of Honour was completed in 1998, marking the artist’s most productive period after a string of success. In the 1980s, Chen had begun using oil paintings to represent China’s beautiful landscapes with the River-town series. Using the West’s familiarity with Venice, Chen promoted China’s scenic Zhouzhuang, even making it a United Nations first day cover in 1985. The Old Dream at Sea series catapulted the artist to another pinnacle in the 1990s; it also used China as starting point, connecting with cultures of Europe and America, establishing a bridge between East and West. The women in Maids of Honour first appeared during the 1980s in the artist’s oeuvre, tracing back to composer Tan Dun’s suggestion prompting the change in direction from Western musicians to traditionally clad women playing Chinese instruments. By the time of Maids of Honour, the artist attained such fluency that the figures no longer hold instruments in their hands. Not only is the beauty of music captured in painting, but the inner elegance, gentleness and restraint rich in Eastern appeal is communicated through finely-honed body language. Not only has Maids of Honourappeared in many publications, but Chen Yifei was also photographed with it numerous times—evidence of Chen’s partiality to this painting.