A precursor of Chinese modern art, Yan Wenliang was among the first group of Chinese artists educated in Europe in the Western style of painting. He was a leading apostle of reality - "Reality comes before beauty" and, "creativity is possible if and only if one is lavishly equipped with the skills of sketching and oil painting" were core tenets of his philosophy. In discussing his approach to painting landscapes, Yan commented, "first and foremost, emotion. Landscapes without emotion are deprived of aura. The emotion embedded in the landscape beckons the same in the viewers, that is, ushers resonance. Next, beauty. Landscapes are to be beautiful, to be mesmerizing, so that viewers are led the way in getting into the landscape with the artist. Finally, it is most desirable for landscapes to be elating, enveloped in an euphoric, buoyant, proactive and uplifting feelings." To unveil genuine beauty, Yan set out his exhaustive, methodical inquisition into the language of oils as represented by color, composition, dexterity, light and shadow, perspective, and materials.
Snowy Night (Lot 1312) is the fruit of his tireless quest. An apposite composition is presented, as the artist opined, "each and every scenic object have to be compact and inextricable; they as a whole should be firmly rooted, manifest vigor, and not void." The artist pictures a wintry night, when the snow-white moon rises high in the sky and the lake is as still as heaven; the cottages in the middle rest between a clear distant sky and the fore lake alongside a field of snow. The artist shrewdly leads the viewers, with the faint footprints in the snow, to walk through the grove and move from the foreground to the cottages; we enjoy the bright full moon, cross the lake and take pleasure in the canoe. The two trees on the left, standing tall and erect, again usher us to be engrossed by the bands of high clouds beyond the treetops. The whole work is an embodiment of a lucid composition in which the balance of dense forms and open space is skillfully maneuvered to bring forth resonances between scenic objects; it invites, almost in a whisper, the viewers to cross the threshold of the painting and get in the mellow mood of a luminescent snowy night under a high moon.
As Yan remarked, painters "ought to look on the small as the large, which is scrupulosity; and vice versa, which is integrality." With an overall composition the artist iterates his deliberation of each and every detail. Every bit of components, like the grove, the reflection, the lights, the smog and the footprints, are drawn in such refinement that they are not in the least fragmentary. To reproduce groves in their real terms, Yan even underwent a series of scientific investigation, by which, as shown in his essay The Prescriptive of Trees (Figure 1 and 2), the features of trunk, branch and leaves are meticulously observed and composed from different perspectives. Light and the effect of lighting are also scientifically studied for the sake of realistic representation. On the still water surface there are reflections of the surroundings; the breadth and luminance of such reflections are depicted in acute accordance with the angle and portion the real subjects are exposed. From Snowy Night we are obliged to contemplate the strenuous effort of Yan Wenliang in unleashing precisely the intrinsic quality and potential of oils, which at the same instant heightens his artistic philosophy.
2- Modern artist: the philosophy, works and life of Yan Wenliang (Xiandai meishu jia: hua lun, zuo pin, sheng ping - Yan Wenliang) (China: Shanghai: Xuelin chubanshe), pp. 104-108.