The only female painter of the pioneering Nanyang group, Chen’s perspective was distinct partly due to her international and itinerant background. Born to an affluent Chinese antique dealer and republican revolutionary, Georgette Chen, or Zhang Liying, was constantly moving due to her father’s business ventures in Paris, London and New York. She often visited China with her family and learned Chinese brushwork as a child. Recognizing her burgeoning talent, her parents had her privately trained in oil painting by a Russian émigré and encouraged her to spend time wandering the Parisian museum collections.
Determined to hone her strong affinity in Western painting medium, she attended art classes at the Art Students League of New York between 1926 and 1927, and later studied art at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris. She recalled “My father expected me to study Chinese painting, but I had a different idea. I told him I wanted to study the oil medium, which would enable me to paint everything around me, people, food, flowers, salted ducks, sampans, peasants and potatoes.”1 In 1930, one of her works was accepted to be exhibited at the Salon d’Automne – a progressive platform for the avante-garde of the Parisian art world. That same year, she married the diplomat and friend of Sun Yat-Sen, Eugene Chen. She would continue to show in Paris and participate in major shows, including ‘Palace of Painting and Sculpture’ as part of the Paris World Fair, and ‘Les Femmes Artistes d’Europe Exposent (Women Artists in Europe)’ at the Musee du Jeu de Paume. The rediscovered Landscape (1930s) painting in the collection of Centre Pompidou is believed to have been acquired from one of such exhibitions.2
Exemplified in Femme Nue (Nude), and other early works such as Landscape and Coast of Brittany, is Chen’s soft, blended brushstrokes that capture each image in chromatic harmony. Chen utilizes a muted palette and applies soft shadows and subtle highlights in a manner akin to the Realist and Barbizon schools of painting. While later works that employ short, distinct and textured brushstrokes, appear more influenced by the post-impressionists and fauvists like Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Cezanne, Chen’s technique during the 1930s underscore her delicate hand. While the background is rendered in broad strokes that connote spatial dimensionality, the main figure is painted in a careful, yet highly sensual manner.
Painted by a woman prevalent within the context of the male-dominated art circles of the early 20th century, Femme Nue signifies how Georgette believed the female figure should be portrayed – honestly and confidently. Chen’s model sits languidly on an upright chair, with her forearm resting against the back of her seat. She glances to the side, as the light captures her soft facial features as she appears to be deep in thought. With her body angled only slightly away, the model’s full torso faces the viewer as she gently clasps a jade green cloth across her legs. She is at once aware of one’s presence but remains in a relaxed, natural disposition. The artist juxtaposes a blend of cool shadow against various peachy tones to illustrate the curves of her sitter’s body and the softness of her bare skin. There is nothing exoticizing or contrived about Chen’s depiction of a nude model, neither is the work explicitly academic.
Importantly, Femme Nue speaks to Chen’s awareness of the voyeuristic gaze that has dominated the history of nude painting. Here, she establishes herself as a leading female voice of her time, carving out a new way of celebrating the female form. She dismisses notions of the other and instead embraces the sensitive personality of a modern woman hoping to pave new roads in society.
Georgette Chen eventually becomes one of the most admired artists in Singapore’s art history as she spent the later years of her life in Malaya, painting local scenes, people and still-lifes. Yet works like Femme Nue reveal her truly international artistic vision and its ability to traverse geographical, and gender, boundaries. At once a Chinese girl from a nationalistic family, a bohemian artist in Paris, and the wife of an eccentric and spirited statesman, Georgette possessed a diverse disposition on a social, cultural, and emotional level. This season offers collectors an extraordinary opportunity to uncover Chen’s personal revelations in the genre of nude painting. Marvellously composed and immensely captivating, Femme Nue serves as a remarkable testament to Chen’s ground-breaking strides in modern art history.
1 Chen, G. (1953, September 7.) Chen’s personal transcript of her interview with Radio Malaya. Retrieved from National Gallery Singapore.
2 “Georgette Chen painting rediscovered in Centre Pompidou”, 29 March 2016, The Straits Times
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