Among the first cohort of artists who had studied abroad, Li Tiefu (1869-1952) had traveled to Northern America and Europe as early as in 1885, earlier than his peers Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Lu Shibai, etc. During his period abroad of almost forty years, Li participated in revolutionary activities led by Sun Yat-sen, studied fine art and worked in the educational field. He also studied under the two renowned American painters William Chase (1849-1916) and John Singer Sargent. Mastering his favorite genre of still life subjects, Li's naturalistic and meticulous brushwork in portraying domestic objects, fishes, vegetables and fruits reveals the influence of Chase.
Still Life (Fish) (Lot 1328) is a piece of work from the artist's Still Life series created when he was in old age and living in Hong Kong permanently. The painting had been kept by the artist's family before being acquired by two private collectors consecutively. Vividly illustrating the unique style of the series, the objects in the painting are rendered with strikingly naturalism, refined and sumptuous brushstrokes, and emphasizes on the textures and forms of the objects. The fish depicted seems to be moist and freshly laid on the plate, whereas the vegetables and fruit are endowed with a sense of freshness. The effect is created through his remarkable virtuosity in the use of oil pigments and colors. The use of thinned oil paints to produce cooler hues and opaque colors accentuates the tangibility and vitality of the objects, which is enhanced through the use of refined brush techniques similar to the Chinese gongbi method (meticulous brushwork). By adopting the use of a general light source in the composition and complimentary colors of the same hues, the variations in light and shadow captured in the painting avoid artistic exaggeration but depict the everyday subject matter in an honest and objective manner of observation. The nuances of light and colors, intriguing and complex, infuse the scene of daily life with a sense of poetic vision.
Appearing to be a simple work of still life subject, the composition and arrangement is nonetheless deliberate and of subtle sophistication. The pigment on the fish belly is smoothly rendered in lustrous round that not only highlights its texture but also produces a highlight against the deep-color desk surface of the foreground and the domestic decor of the background. Li henceforth establishes the three layers of space between the foreground, middle-ground and background, accentuating the depth of view and three-dimensionality of the composition. The undulating curves of the fish body, the circular rim of the plate, and the plump contours of the vegetables and fruits echo with one another. The scene of every life is enriched by a sense of serenity and stability and captures the enlightened enjoyment of the ordinary and commonplace. Li's still life paintings reveal the direct influence from traditional Realism from the West. But through transmutation and re-interpretation of the artist, they are synchronized to the aesthetic appreciation specific to the Chinese audience. By rendering the ordinary scenes with remarkable details, the work displays a relaxed and serene picture of the commonplace and also conveys the artist's satisfaction towards life.