Born in Paris in 1907 and educated in France, China, and the United States, Georgette trained in and was deeply influenced by the modern art movements of the West. Even as a student in Paris she proved to be a talented artist who was recognised by the French artistic establishment. Several of her works were selected for exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in 1930, and one of her paintings was even acquired by the Musée du Jeu de Paume in 1933—a significant achievement for a young Asian artist at the time.
Following the upheaval of World War II and the premature passing of her husband Eugene Chen in 1944, Georgette eventually made her way to Singapore in 1954. She settled there permanently and carved a niche for herself among the pioneering generation of Singaporean artists—she was, after all, the only woman in the small Nanyang art circle. Her work, which often depicts people and objects she encountered in daily life, is celebrated for the elegant yet intimate style by which she documents vignettes of mid-20th century Southeast Asian life.
Georgette once referred to Singapore as her Tahiti, having been charmed by the “island of perpetual summer” that she made her home. Like Gauguin in Tahiti, some of the most beautiful and noteworthy works of her oeuvre stem from her years in Singapore where she sought continuous inspiration in the land and people surrounding her. Enraptured by its majesty, she described Mother Nature as serene, sonorous, and supernal—adjectives that can similarly be applied to her art.
Seaside is a strikingly rare work as Georgette produced a small body of paintings, of which only a handful depicted seascapes. Painted in precise yet bold brushstrokes, the painting is awash with the light of the morning sun, with only the faintest of the dawn’s mist remaining as the sunlight touches on the glittering waves. It is a painting of significant formal beauty with its ordered composition; Georgette’s keen sense for colour and visual harmony manifests in her choice of palette as its lightness evokes the bright, sun-drenched setting of equatorial Singapore. In Seaside, she uses one of her signature colours –a cooling teal blue—that lends the landscape clarity of tone. The overall style of the painting is naturalistic yet highly refined, and exemplifies the characteristic freshness and vigor found in Georgette’s strongest works such as Lotus Symphony (1962) and Paysage de Chine avec sampans (China landscape with sampans).
Georgette was particularly enchanted by the surroundings of her adopted homeland, describing Singapore as “truly one of the paradises of this world with these calm and warm shores on which so many races live, blending their cultures and colours into a many-splendored pattern to feast the avid eyes of the artist.” (Georgette Chen, "Some thoughts on the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts", Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Class 1967, Singapore, 1957) The present lot is indeed a feast for the eyes and a charming snapshot of coastal life in Singapore in the 1960s. Georgette captures skilfully the lively rhythm of the people’s movements as well as the lyrical beauty of the natural surroundings through her brushwork. She varies her strokes the same way a violinist may use a bow—short, thickly textured applications that convey the solidity of the earth and the people lighten as the shore blends into the sea; while long, legato brushstrokes suggest the expansiveness of the water and the sky, as the viewer’s eye is cast towards the horizon.
The present work also exemplifies both the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist influences on Georgette’s artistic style, and is especially reminiscent of Claude Monet’s water reflections or Albert Marquet’s (1875-1947) seascapes. Here, she makes use of the interplay of light and shadow to illustrate the caress of sunlight upon the seascape. Georgette also paints the rippled reflections of the paddling figures on the water, highlighting the calm surface of the sea. The soft hues that make up the natural surroundings are contrasted against the vivid colours of the human figures in the foreground. This varying intensity between figure and background lends the painting further depth and dimensionality. Georgette’s artistic vision shines through in how she masterfully adapts Post-Impressionist landscape aesthetics into a Southeast Asian context and imbues her works with a distinctive Nanyang flair.
Besides showcasing a talent for capturing the atmospheric ambience of a specific location in Seaside, Georgette’s skill for observation is evident in her attention to the minutest of details. Katong Beach is portrayed as a site of labour, play, and rest. Mothers bask in the sunlight together with their children while a single black rooster stands idly by the road. Several men around the beach are engaged in tasks like moving a sampan and gathering fish into a basket. At the same time, the seated figure wearing a songkok gazes at the sea in quiet contentment. The addition of visual details hardly seen in modern-day Singapore, from the kelong (fishing platform) in the distance to the rattan leaves protecting the sampans from the elements, contributes to Seaside’s sentimental vision of a bygone era.
Georgette’s methodical, deliberate approach to painting belies the emotional intensity her work invokes. This thought is also reflected by her contemporary and long-time friend Liu Kang, who said that, “in [Georgette’s] works, subtlety supersedes those bold and unrestrained emotions to express a greater warmth and gentleness.” (Liu Kang, Pioneer Artist of Singapore: Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, Nanyang Museum Art Gallery, Singapore, 1965) A sense of nostalgia permeates the entire work—for the present audience, Seaside offers a rare opportunity to remember the beauty of Katong Beach, which was reclaimed just a few years later after the painting’s creation as part of a nation-wide development project in the late 1960s. Once a location where people from all walks of life gathered for recreation and work, Katong Beach now lives on as a part of Singapore’s national memory, its image immortalised on canvas under Georgette’s brush.
Seaside is an exceptional work that synthesises Georgette’s earlier style with her maturing artistic vision. Its rarity as a seascape painting amongst the artist’s oeuvre is a testament to her versatility as an artist, who worked on perfecting her techniques in landscape, portraiture, and still life paintings. Georgette’s obvious delight in the nature she observed around her followed her throughout her life as she travelled around the world, imbuing her art with a certain joie de vivre that sets it apart in the canon of modern Singaporean art.
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