The Satay Seller is a classic piece that exemplifies Lee’s refined style as well as his penchant for illustrating vignettes of local Indonesian life. Painted in a vertical orientation reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings, it depicts a quintessentially Southeast Asian scene-- a satay seller grilling his skewers on a small charcoal brazier while patiently fanning the coals with a piece of rattan. A tree rendered in the loose, freeform xieyi style borders the work on the right, further highlighting the influence of Chinese ink paintings on Lee’s artistic vocabulary.
The present lot’s previous owner lived and worked in Indonesia in the 1950s, where he became acquainted with Lee and later acquired the painting from the artist directly. The Satay Seller is an exquisite example of the alluring synthesis of Oriental and Western aesthetics found in Lee’s work. His six-year sojourn in the Netherlands from 1946-1952 as the recipient of the prestigious Malino scholarship—the only one offered by the Dutch government to a non-citizen at the time—introduced him to the techniques employed by the Dutch masters, expanding his repertoire of artistic skills beyond those of classical Chinese painting. Lee was an avid admirer of Rembrandt, particularly the latter’s attention to chiaroscuro, and sought to incorporate it into his own works. Lee was also inspired by Dutch genre paintings, which portrayed the simplicity of daily life and amplified the beauty of ordinary happenings. In that vein, The Satay Seller demonstrates Lee’s transformed painterly style as he reached new heights of creativity following his time abroad.
The present work teems with serene charm, and underscores Lee’s masterful artistry in documenting everyday scenes. Although it was created with oil paints, his light hand in applying paint onto the board recalls the airy character of Chinese ink. The subject matter is communicated through suggestions of form within light and shadow instead of harsh lines and defined edges, lending the piece a gentle, almost impressionist quality. Lee also uses a subtle sepia-toned palette of earthy browns, with the red of the glowing coals (and the artist’s stamp on the far right) being the only brilliant points of colour in the entire work. The soft, dreamy hues of the painting evoke a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia as the viewer gains an intimate glimpse into the peaceful, self-contained world of the satay vendor.
However, Lee’s admiration for the poetic aesthetics of classical ink paintings did not deter him from innovating upon them. In a departure from the flat, two-dimensional representations of form found in ink paintings, Lee employs fixed perspective in the present work--his introduction of depth into the composition of the painting vis-à-vis the angled position of the satay seller and his makeshift stall reflects his fluency in Western artistic techniques. The Satay Seller is at once timeless yet distinctly modern in sensibility, a testament to Lee’s confident amalgamation of different artistic styles into his own.
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