Lot 1001
  • 1001

Yan Wenliang

600,000 - 800,000 HKD
2,920,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Yan Wenliang
  • Song of Spring
  • signed in Chinese 
  • oil on canvas
  • 63 by 94 cm.;   24 3/4  by 37 in.


Sotheby's, Taipei, 13 April, 1997, lot 58
Private Asian Collection

Catalogue Note

A Pioneer of Chinese Landscape Oil Painting:
Yan Wenliang, Song of Spring

“That year, Xu Beihong was Chair of the Art Department at National Central University [now Nanjing Normal University], Lin Fengmian was President at the National Hangzhou School of Art [now the China Academy of Art], Liu Haisu was President at the Shanghai University College of Fine Arts, and Yan Wenliang was President at the Suzhou Art Academy, and even a Category 12 typhoon could not have nudged a single one of these presidents from their posts.”
Pang Xunqin, This is How We Did It

The 20thcentury was an important chapter in the development of Chinese art. Many artists were leaving to train at schools in the West and coming back to China after completing their educations. Among these returned were Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, and Yan Wenliang. Also known as the “Four Presidents.” Together they formed the bedrock of contemporary Chinese Art. In 1922, Yan Wenliang established the Suzhou Art Academy, now known as the Suzhou Art and Design Technical Institute, adjacent to the city’s Canglang Pavilion. But chasing a desire to delve further into Western art, Yan made the decisive decision to leave his post as president and set for the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the art of Classical Realism. In 1931, he returned to the academy in Suzhou, bringing with him nearly ten thousand volumes of painting books and five hundred sculpture reproductions, and continued making important contributions to contemporary art. In the eight decades of his artistic career, countless students were trained under Yan’s tutelage, and in his later years, his student Chen Yifei recalled, “It was Yan’s teaching materials that I kept tucked under my arm when entering high school and college.” The master and mentor was equally strong in both moral character and artistic virtuosity.

Yan, much like Xu Beihong, was an adherent of Classicism. While Xu focused on human subjects, however, Yan more frequently created landscape paintings, his portrayals refined and meticulous without appearing stiff or rigid. Rich with poetic meaning and containing profound conceptual depth, Yan’s paintings exude charm and delight. Although he was not an Impressionist, Yan once said candidly, “As for Impressionism, I didn’t care for it then, but still, unconsciously, I was influenced by it. I like Impressionism’s use of color; at the time, I knew only to paint realistically.” Impressionism is primarily concerned with capturing a snapshot, a fleeting instant of a larger scene, and to portray the effects of light. These pursuits, however, often come at the expense of the form and texture of the painting’s subjects. Fundamentally speaking, Yan’s paintings are at odds with Impressionist works, but where they stand on common ground is in their shared aim of capturing reality, and to this end, Yan adopted some Impressionist techniques into his own realist landscape paintings, such as rich variation in color and light.

Song of Spring (Lot 1001) is a classic representative of Yan’s style. With the principles of Classic Realism as his guide, the artist uses verdant green as the dominant colour to evoke the abundance of spring. Through carefully constructed perspective and composition, as well as stunning depiction of details and use of light and shadow, the painting conveys the poetry of a fresh spring day teeming with vitality, as well as the subtle changes of the tranquil beauty of nature. Yan longed to capture each blade of grass and each tree with perfection, believing that in painting, “one must magnify that which is small, and reduce that which is large. To magnify the small is to see the details, and to reduce the large is to regard the entire scene.” The artist cleverly lures the viewer into the painting through the faintly discernible path amid the tall grass, leading us through the trees until the viewer’s eyes have arrived at the small boat anchored next to the shore. The entire painting is clear and distinct in its composition and intent. Towering trees occupy the right side of the canvas, their branches extending to the left, guiding the viewers’ focus in the same direction towards the faraway scenery. Here, the viewer discovers small human figures weaving among the trees. Experiences the charm of the artist's meticulous details. In fact, the level of exquisite detail displayed in Song of Spring approaches that of Chinese gongbi painting, the trees, branches, grass, and wild flowers finely portrayed yet never cluttered. In order to illustrate nature with ultimate realism, Yan approached the study of the effects of light as well as the appearance of reflections upon water using scientific techniques. In his essay “An Examination of Trees,” Yan thoroughly dissects and analyzes each part of a tree, suggesting compositions depending on the desired perspective of a painting, accurately and realistically depicting trees as they appear in nature. Yan’s enormous dedication of time and energy in his  landscape oil paintings is undeniable, and his tireless attitude has helped him fulfill, thoroughly and brilliantly, the potentials of Western painting.

Although Yan used Western painting materials and techniques, the calligraphic signature and seal as well as the harmony between heaven and earth in his paintings undoubtedly reflect an Eastern aesthetic and philosophy. The poetry evokes a painting, and the painting evokes poetry – this is the very spirit of traditional Chinese painting, as well as a belief to which Yan subscribed to. He insisted that landscape paintings must arouse deep feelings and be rife with emotion, once saying:

"The beauty of landscape paintings, in my opinion, lies first in whether it possesses emotion. Landscape paintings without emotion have no spirit. But bestow a landscape painting with emotion, and that emotion will be evoked in its viewers, creating resonance. Secondly, landscape paintings must be beautiful; they must have the ability to enchant. What, exactly, is this ability to enchant? It’s simply the ability to lure and attract, to make the viewer feel as though he or she, along with the artist, has stepped into the scene of the painting. Without emotion, however, landscape paintings cannot be enchanting. Third, landscape paintings should bring about joy (or other positive emotions which are full of optimism, energy, and action). Landscape paintings that bring people joy are the most beautiful of them all." 

Simple and unadorned, yet rich with poetic feeling, Song of Spring is easily associated with Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, a follower of the Barbizon movement, who let his emotions flow through the brush, and treated natural landscapes with meticulous attention to detail. In Song of Spring, the image on the canvas reveals a masterful creation of depth in field and harmonious, elegant arrangement. What lies within the canvas is a vivid and lifelike world, exuding an exquisite quietness; and what is evoked in the viewer beyond the canvas is the feeling of “spirits sailing with the autumn clouds, and thoughts billowing, into the vast and expansive, with the spring wind.”