Lot 1108
  • 1108


3,000,000 - 5,000,000 HKD
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  • Lee Man Fong
  • Doves
  • Signed in Chinese and stamped with the seal of the artist
  • Oil on masonite board 
  • 122 by 244 cm; 48 by 96 in. 


Private Asian Collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Asian Collection


Lee Man Fong: Oil Paintings, Vol. I, ed. Siont Teja, Art Retreat, 2005, Singapore, black and white illustration with the artist, p. 238


This work is in good overall condition as viewed. There is evidence of light wear and losses along the edges of the work due to abrasions with the frame, but this does not affect the overall image. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals areas of restoration primarily along the edges of the work, with some small spots of inpainting to restore previous scratches primarily along the bottom quadrants. Framed.
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.

Catalogue Note

Described as the ‘grand old master of the brush,’[1] the Chinese-Indonesian painter Lee Man Fong was a pioneer of the Nanyang style best known for his quiet, immersive works depicting the beauty and warmth of Southeast Asian life. From his humble beginnings as a newspaper sketch artist to his appointment as court painter of the Indonesian presidential palace, Man Fong led a storied career that established him as one of Southeast Asia’s most celebrated artists. To wit, Man Fong’s works are highly sought-after for their unique stylistic syncretism, blending Western composition styles and mediums with Chinese subjects and techniques. Doves is a splendid example of Man Fong’s mastery in amalgamating both artistic traditions of East and West. While the symbolism of doves as bringers of peace harkens back to the Western tradition, the execution of the painting itself speaks to the artist’s ability to utilize techniques from both Chinese and Western painting to create his own personal artistic vocabulary. The striking composition, meticulous attention to detail, and earthy color palette are emphasized by the painting’s grand size, situating it as one of the most beautiful and noteworthy works within the artist’s considerable oeuvre.

Doves is emblematic of Man Fong’s mature art style—lyrical and elegant, with a dream-like quality. In the years prior to painting the present work, the maestro spent part of his career in the Netherlands studying the Dutch Masters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, and their influence is undoubtedly reflected in his expressive use of light and color in the present lot. The entire work is suffused with a gentle golden light, lending an otherworldly feeling to the depicted scene; a spectrum of rich, mellow greens and browns dominate the picture plane, emphasizing the natural setting. Against this background, a beam of light from above falls on the doves in the very center of the painting, creating a focal point for the viewer and setting off their eggshell-white plumage to brilliant effect. Man Fong brings to mind the Japanese word komorebi, emblematic of the sunshine that escapes through trees by filtering between leaves, peppering the surface with irregular and fleeting moments of light. Each dove is blanketed with a varying intensity of sunlight, casting shadows that delineate their individual forms and postures. The overall impression of the painting is warm and luminous, offering the viewer a glimpse into a dreamy, picturesque vision.  

The artist also achieves the exquisite interplay of light and color in Doves through the fine, meticulous brushwork he uses to depict the flora and fauna in the painting. For instance, he vividly and precisely portrays the doves in a variety of positions, be they perched on a branch or in mid-flight. The feeling of witnessing a flurry of movement captured in a single instant is enhanced by the way in which he makes use of subtle, nuanced shading to reproduce the different ways light falls on the doves. Thus, besides adding a feeling of natural spontaneity to the scene, his skillful execution of the doves in various stages of motion also highlights his technical mastery in the medium of oil painting. This is again showcased in how deftly he renders the varied textures present in the scene through his use of color—the glossy feathers of the doves; the roughly-hewn face of the cliff; the delicate, crinkled softness of the leaves. Thus, Doves is a stellar example of Man Fong’s talent for figuration, and his unparalleled ability to depict idyllic yet realistic scenes from the world around him in his art.

In addition, the use of perspective in Doves also showcases Man Fong’s mastery of Western oil painting techniques. In contrast to the spare, elegant minimalism that characterizes some of his other works, Doves is fluid with detail and movement, yet the visual effect is never overwhelming. While most of the titular doves are perched on a craggy outcropping that extends diagonally towards the center of the painting, drawing one’s eye to the foreground, Man Fong also experiments with depth, painting more doves taking flight into the distance in the background. The juxtaposition of the doves in motion and at rest imbues the work with a sense of dynamism, an effect enhanced by the contrast between the empty space falling away from the outcropping on the left and the tightly-clustered trees on the right. Man Fong’s canny use of perspective draws all these elements together into a cohesive whole, highlighting the visual harmony of the entire work.

Though Man Fong was evidently influenced by and made much use of Western oil painting techniques, the sense of place and mood of Doves also subtly suggests the aesthetics of a Chinese ink painting. For instance, as the scenery recedes into the background, it begins to take on some of the visual characteristics of classical Chinese landscape paintings. The vividly realistic representations of the flora and fauna in the foreground gradually give way to soft, diffused brushstrokes hinting at the blurred outlines of mountains in the distance. Thus, the visual reference to the Chinese xieyi tradition creates a feeling of delicate translucence that permeates the entire work.

Over the course of his lifetime, Man Fong produced a prolific body of work with subjects ranging from the mundane to the exalted,[2] yet which were always united by a singular clarity of vision. His fidelity to his artistic imagination allowed him to break free of the constraints of either Western or Chinese painting traditions, instead drawing elements from both to create a uniquely personal style. In Doves, one finds an exceptional work that embodies Man Fong’s lifelong preoccupation with nature, and which exemplifies his remarkable ability to rejuvenate pictorial traditions and invite the viewer in to share in his artistic reveries. Featuring an array of multiple motioning doves contentedly situated in their natural milieu, this remarkable, sprawling composition is indisputably a chef d'oeuvre from the Lee Man Fong’s vast opus.  

[1] Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)

[2] Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.