"She (Pan Yuliang) was not just the firstfemale artist to have such influence in China in the 20th century; she was the founder and pioneer of female art in China." — Jia Fangzhou
Pan Yuliang traveled to France in 1921, where she studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. That made her, along with Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian and Sanyu, one of the earliest Chinese artists to study abroad in France. Returning to China in 1928, she held five solo exhibitions, which also made her the first Chinese female artist in modern times to hold a solo exhibition.
Pan had begun to receive formal training in Western painting in the 1910s. A highly versatile artist, she is known for her nude portraits, landscape paintings, and still lifes, as well as some sculptural works. Her still lifes frequently featured floral themes; the bright, saturated colours of her early works in that genre drew inspiration from Matisse and the Fauves. After the 1940s, Pan deliberately merged the linear character of Chinese painting with the colour of Western paintings, while focusing more and more on painting in coloured ink on Chinese xuan paper. She gradually developed a highly individual style through her use of fine, flowing lines. This Lilacs , from 1966, is a representative work, displaying the results of her explorations in blending Eastern and Western styles.
Based on records in Artworks of Pan Yuliang , issued by Anhui Chu Ban She, only about one-tenth of Pan Yuliang's more than 300 coloured ink works feature floral themes, an indication of this Lilacs ' rarity. Another very similar work resides in the collection of the Anhui Museum; the two differing mainly in the type and design of the vase. In the Anhui museum example, Pan decorates the vase with vaguely floral motifs, while this Lilacs features a double-handled vase on which the auspicious image of a rooster appears. The appealing, rustic simplicity of the vase helps enhance the quiet, elegant beauty of the lilac blooms.
Pan Yuliang was frequently active in the United States in the 1960s. She mounted a solo exhibition at the China Institute in America in New York in 1963, which then went on tour to San Francisco; in 1967, along with Zhang Daqian and Wang Jiyuan, she held the group exhibition "Modern Chinese Brushwork" at the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts. When Pan Yuliang entered the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts in 1918, she studied under Wang Jiyuan and became close friends with Zhang Daqian, who named her his "big sister." Wang Jiyuan settled in the United States in 1941 and founded the Huamei Painting Academy. At the academy was a teacher related to members of the Belfield Trust, the original collector of Lilacs , and who, along with Zhang Daqian, was a member of the Academy's board of directors.
With taste and foresight, he collected a number of the finest paintings of Zhang Daqian, Pan Yuliang, and Wang Jiyuan during this period. In 2012, Christie's Hong Kong auctioned a number of Wang Jiyuan works from this important North American collection; the top three record auction prices for that artist's work have since then been held by three works from that sale. Lilacs last appeared at sale more than ten years ago, and its reappearance today marks a rare and valuable opportunity.
Lilacs , typical of Pan Yuliang, is a graceful and beautiful work, with clear and elegant colors and skillful integration of elements of Eastern and Western painting. The flowers exude rich vitality in a fresh, romantic violet hue, which she builds up in layers of coloured ink while outlining the edges of their petals in just a few simple brushstrokes. She further sets out the decorative figures of the ceramic vase with the flowing yet precise and unbroken lines of the ancient "spun-silk" style; her exacting control of the thickness of the lines as she paints adds an extra element of agility and heightens its Eastern character. Pan creates spatial depth in Lilacs through her colours and lines, which, moving from the center of the painting toward its outer edges, become gradually darker and denser. Spatial penetration is further enhanced as her quick, interlacing lines of varying length create textures in the interweaving of her colours and inks. Her unique handling of the background marks a break from the empty spaces of traditional Chinese painting. By combining the background colour highlights in oil painting with Impressionist dabs of pointillist colour such traditional paintings, she created original coloured-ink paintings that blended features of Impressionism and Chinese painting, a mark of her bold innovation. Xu Beihong had glowing praise for Pan's work: "What the ancient scholar-painters could not achieve has been achieved by our heroine, Pan Yuliang." By contrast with Xu Beihong's emphasis on light, modeling, analytical dissection of structure, and accurate depiction of skeletal forms—which enriched the sense of mass and space in Chinese painting—what Pan Yuliang emphasized was the colour contrasts and harmonies within her pictorial space. The result was a melding of the emotionally rich manner in which lines shape forms in Chinese painting with the intensely expressively colours of Western painting, creating a unique and personal style of her own.
Ye Saifu, chief curator of the Cernuschi Museum of Far Eastern Art in Paris, once said, "Pan Yuliang’s works merge the greatest strengths of Chinese and Western painting, and she further imbues them with colours expressive of her own personality. Their vivid lines describe the softness and the freedom of the subjects she depicts." That statement goes very far in summing up the significance of this great 20th century artist, who helped usher in a new era.