Lot 557
  • 557

Yun Gee (Zhu Yuanzhi)

3,800,000 - 5,000,000 HKD
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  • Yun Gee (Zhu Yuanzhi)
  • Self-Portrait
  • oil on canvas
signed Y; The Oakland Museum, The William Benton Museum of Art, Chambers Fine Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Jason McCoy Inc. labels affixed to the reverse
executed circa 1927


Collection of Li-lan Gee
Sotheby's Hong Kong, October 4, 2010, Lot 264
Important Private Asian Collection


Storrs, The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, The Paintings of Yun Gee, October 13 - November 18, 1979
Greensboro, Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina, The Paintings of Yun Gee, February 10 - March 9, 1980
Oakland, The Oakland Museum, The Paintings of Yun Gee, March 18 - April 27, 1980
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, The Paintings of Yun Gee, October 10 - November 23, 1980
Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, The Art of Yun Gee, March 25 - June 14, 1992
New York, Chambers Fine Art, A Minimal Vision - Furniture with Paintings by Yun Gee, March 20 -  April 20, 2002
New York, Jason McCoy Inc., Experiences of Passage: The Paintings of Yun Gee and Li-lan , March 13 - April 12, 2008


Joyce Brodsky, ed., The Paintings of Yun Gee, The William Benton Museum of Art, The University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1979, p. 43
The Art of Yun Gee, Taipei Fine Arts Museum Publishing, Taipei, 1992, p. 81, illustrated in colour
A Minimal Vision - Furniture with Paintings by Yun Gee, Chambers Fine Art, New York, 2002, p. 83, illustrated in colour


This work is in very good condition. There is one small spot of paint loss 0.3 cm in length, 9 cm to the top and 9 cm to the left edge. There is no evidence of restoration under UV.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A Pioneering Chinese Artist who Emerged from San Francisco’s Art Scene
Early Display of Glimmering Artistic Flair in Yun Gee’s Self-Portrait

A crucial turning point in the story of the Chinese in China-town takes place in the 1920s in the work and life of Yun Gee, easily the most remarkable Chinese American painter of his generation.

Prof. Anthony Lee, Department of History, Mount Holyoke College

The 20th century Chinese history unfolded not only within Mainland China, but also in regions overseas. Since the mid-19th century, large-scale immigration occurred in coastal areas. A large Chinese community was formed in San Francisco, and the city was dubbed the “Old Gold Mountain” in Chinese, a reference to the gold rush. Son of a Chinese American immigrant, Yun Gee moved at the age of 15 from his native province of Canton to San Francisco, where he received formal art education. For local Chinese Americans, this was highly unconventional and an important milestone for Chinese-American artists. Eventually, his success took his name back to Shanghai, where he was included in the 1932 publication entitled Biographies of Chinese Leaders. Inspired by his teacher and mentor Otis Oldfield, not only did Yun Gee create a series of contemporary paintings with bold, unique personal style, but also he co-founded the Modern Gallery (predecessor of the San Francisco Art Center) at the tender age of 20, as well as the Chinese Revolutionary Artists’ Club. Even the Mexican master painter, Diego Rivera, and his wife Frida Kahlo paid him a visit, a triumphant occasion for the Chinese-American community as well as the American art history. Yun Gee’s Self-Portrait (Lot 557), featured on the catalogue cover of this season’s day sale, is a representative masterpiece from the artist’s “San Francisco Period” (1926 – 27).

A Young Chinese Artist who Made History
Historically, self-portrait has been an important category in Western paintings since the mid-15th century. During the time, mirrors were made on a larger scale, enabling Renaissance artists to observe their own images and create portraits of themselves. Because the artists were also models for the paintings, a self-portrait was considered an artist’s best and most confident creation, often carrying a kind of autobiographical significance as an iconic, representative image of the artist. In particular, Rembrandt van Rijn created a collection of self-portraits throughout his life, capturing both the physical appearance and internal spirit of the 17th century Dutch master painter. The collection is revered as the pinnacle of Realistic paintings. Towards the end of 19th century, Post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh, also from Denmark, created a number of emotionally charged, vibrantly colored self-portraits, through which not only did he reach another peak of artistic achievements, but also initiated the subsequent wave of Post-Impressionist self-portraits. Yun Gee’s Self-Portrait was perhaps a response to such a trend, conveying a youthful and spirited image of the artist to the viewer: in the picture, Yun Gee was wearing a hunting cap, a jacket and a white shirt, whilst his tie was loose. It was an outfit for a grown man, smartly dressed but also slightly rebellious. What captures the viewer’s attention even more strongly was the face of the young man: his clearly defined facial features, high cheekbones and a moustache cleverly drawn in a shape akin to the Chinese character for “eight”. His eyes were dark and unmistakably Oriental, gazing directly at the viewer in a knowing and worldly fashion. Even his adam’s apple was heavily accentuated through manipulation of light and shades, contributing to a physical image more mature than his real age.

Although it is a portrait, there is a sense of motion in the figure rather than complete stillness. Standing sideway, both facing and looking to his left hand side, he seemed to have just turned around to face the viewer, and that fleeting moment had been captured in the painting. The three left turns – of his body, his head and his eyes – create a sense of movement within stillness. Even the light, shades and colors in the semi-abstract background seem to be changing with the figure’s movement. There also appears to be an Eastern flavor in the objects behind him, possibly a picture or a painting in front of a wardrobe, which suggests that the background was drawn based on real objects. Having been a young immigrant, Yun Gee developed a strong cultural identity since an early age. Placing his self-portrait against such a background might have been a display of his cultural identity, as well as an early experiment to incorporate Chinese influence in oil paintings.

Synchromism: Leading the Way on the American West Coast
Although Yun Gee was only 21 when he completed the Self Portrait, the painting shows evidence of a mature and highly developed artistic style. It reveals the artist’s exceptional creative talents and ability to quickly assimilate modern European ideas, which he then transformed into his own creativity. Under Oldfield’s training, Yun Gee gained profound insights into Synchromism, which places a strong emphasis on the structure and rhythm of colors in expressing the theme of the artwork. The artist employed a Cubist approach in its composition, dividing the figure’s body and face into many small geometric shapes, most prominently as triangular planes. These small triangles, when used independently, could be elongated and morphed to suit the shape of the object. Together, they can also form other shapes such as rectangles, trapezoids and parallelograms, offering a great degree of flexibility which contributes to a solid composition. In Self-Portrait, the figure’s body below the neck is formed almost nearly only by small triangles, resulting in a robust appearance. The right cheekbone and left jaw are the most prominent features on the face, also made of triangular shapes. According to Yun Gee’s photographs from the same period, such exaggerated facial features are indeed based on reality whilst highlighting his personality and image.

The Synchromist movement also had a significant impact on Yun Gee’s color philosophy. At the California School of Fine Arts, Oldfield required his students to paint using pure oil pigment on paper, instead of mixing the pigments on the palette plate to create different shades. Because the oil paint is quickly absorbed into the material, such training equipped Yun Gee with an advanced ability to identify and apply different colors. Red and green are often featured as main colors of his works from his San Francisco period. Admittedly, such an approach is based on the “Color Wheel Theory” widely popular at the time, in which the two complementary colors of red and green sit at the opposite sides of the color wheel. The bright and vibrant color scheme of red and green heightens the contrast and provides a focus for the painting, such that even though his facial expression is calm and introspective, the emotional and visual expressions are still strong and vigorous.  Such a color contrast is especially pronounced on the inverted triangular “light spots” on his face. For classical Western fine art painters, the control of light and shades on the figure’s cheekbones is often critical to its successful portrayal. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, for example, show the artist’s exemplary application of such light spots. As a contemporary artist, Yun Gee included more subjective elements in Self-Portrait, for example, by using the green color for the light spots. This unorthodox approach not only highlights the individualistic and unconventional nature of the character, but also represents the artist’s innovative spirit to break free from conventions. Amongst the artists active along the American West Coast, which remained primarily in the Academic and Impressionist domains, Yun Gee, a Chinese young man still in his 20s, was one of the few artists who boldly innovated whilst possessing a mature artistic style. ”Today Yun Gee is the best-known Chinese American artist active in the first half of the twentieth century, appreciated especially for the strikingly modernist paintings he made in San Francisco in the 1920s,” commented 20th century American Historian Tom Wolf.

A Chinese Self-Portrait Masterpiece
Through Self-Portrait, Yun Gee introduced an important subject into the domain of Chinese art pieces that draw inspirations from the West. Traditionally, Chinese painters often use flowers and objects as metaphors for themselves, following a long legacy since the ancient times. Self-portraits by painters were few and far between. Chen Hongshou (1599-1652) from the late Ming Dynasty and Ren Xiong (1823-1857) from the mid Qing Dynasty are two important figures who portrayed the artist’s own personality through the depiction of physical and facial features. Coincidentally, such an approach bears fascinating resemblance with their Western counterparts. Yun Gee painted Self-Portrait in 1927, around the same period as contemporary master painters such as Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso. Not only was Yun Gee the first contemporary Chinese artist to paint in the self-portrait category, but also, in terms of expressiveness and as an early display of artistic talents, the achievements could rival his contemporaries across the globe. Compared to the self-portraits by other celebrated Chinese artists such as Xu Beihong and Pan Yuliang, Yun Gee’s Self-Portrait has incorporated more contemporary concepts. Yun Gee was a pioneering American-Chinese artist, whilst Sanyu, a Chinese artist of a similar age, broke new grounds in France. Today, the latter’s strongly autobiographical potted flowers paintings set the benchmark of 20th century Chinese art market. As the studies of overseas Chinese artists continue to advance both in China and beyond, the historical significance Yun Gee’s paintings will increasingly be acknowledged, and their market values will also continue to surge. In time, Self-Portrait’s stature will also grow, both as an exemplary Chinese American masterpiece as well as an early American contemporary artwork of great significance.