GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
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GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)


GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
signed ‘CHEN’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
55 x 38.5 cm. (21 5/8 x 15 1/8 in.)
Painted circa 1960
Acquired directly from the artist, thence by descent to the present owner

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡)

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Lot Essay

Among the pioneers and masters of the Nanyang School, Madame Georgette Chen stands out as one with an extensive and exceptional background. Born in 1906, Chen led a life of privilege in a cosmopolitan family who greatly encouraged her interest in and pursuit of art. Attending the Art Students’ League in New York, and later Academie Colarossi and Academie Biloul in Paris, Chen’s strong artistic foundation and natural ability led to her inclusion in the prestigious modernist salon, Le Salon d’Automne in 1930, the same year as her marriage to the diplomat Eugene Chen. However, the end of the Sino-Japanese War and the passing of her husband led Chen to Singapore in 1954, where she took up a teaching position at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

A revered figure in Asian art, Chen’s paintings are considered to be some of the finest examples of mid-20th century art in Southeast Asia, renowned for their refinement and sophistication, and identified through the painter’s immaculate brushwork, muted pastel colour palette, and compositions of beautifully rendered plein-airs, graceful portraiture or Cezanne-esque still lifes of localised subjects.

Acquired directly from Chen in 1960, and held in private collection, Rambutans makes its public debut as a treasured work from an esteemed collector whose elder brother had been a student under Chen herself. Friendly ties with the artist led to many fond memories for the collector and his family, including the acquisition of Rambutans from Chen’s own private studio, and the presentation of an elegant 1965 portrait of the collector’s mother, Madam Tan Hong Siang, to be offered in Christie’s Hong Kong’s Modern & Contemporary Art day sale.

Painted circa 1960, Rambutans came to fruition in a time where Chen painted some of her finest still life arrangements of bananas, rambutans, starfruit, mangosteens, durians, pomelos etc. So truly enamoured was she by the variety of exotic fruit in the tropics, that Chen, known especially for her depictions of the rambutan, had this rather self-deprecating view: “I am known in our Chinese circles as a “rambutan specialist”. Whatever merit there is in this view, it is certainly due to these gorgeous “red heads” themselves rather than my brush” (Georgette Chen, quoted in The Artist Speaks: Georgette Chen, Singapore, 2018, p. 115)

A truly modest perspective by any means, for Rambutans is a wonderfully executed and elegant work comprising a complex yet fluid juxtaposition of strokes which impart a sense of vibrancy and rhythm to the surface of the canvas. Background shades of muted earth tones are blended with undertones of dove blue, a unique combination recurrent in most of Chen’s works. This creates a serene and dreamlike quality, whilst forming a harmonious contrast to the warm red and sage green hues of luscious rambutans and their still-bearing leaves.

Like the post-Impressionists, Chen had the ability to elevate modest things such as local fruit, bestowing upon them an elegance of appearing both delicate and enduringly solid at the same time. Soft, curvilinear, flickering brushstrokes create waves of energy in the undulation of the crisp green leaves as they grow in disparate angles from the parent stem, and in the thorny burrs of the rambutans, highlighting the firm textural quality of the fruit, while achieving the impression of a rambutan branch gently swaying in a tropical breeze.

Viewers of Chen’s works may certainly distinguish elements of Van Gogh’s influence through the use of colour and the liveliness of her brush. However, unlike the emotive and expressionist canvases of Van Gogh, whose capricious, swirling brushstrokes and bursts of colour convey a sense of turbulence and intense light, Chen’s paintings reflect calmness and serenity instead. Artistic spirit, intuition and spontaneity are complimented by the artist’s analytical and meticulous approach of working. Chen’s still lifes are studies in sharp observance and orderly composition – every gesture is carefully considered for its representation of even the smallest of details and rendering of appearances as accurately as possible. As a whole, these elements imbue her works with an authenticity and a measured refinement, complemented with gentleness and warmth.

A reflection of Chen’s conceptions and evolution as an artist, still life compositions constitute a significant proportion of Chen’s oeuvre , and she never fails to accord a liveliness of touch and solidarity of structure to the simplest subject. In them, she contends with the technicalities of painting, while exploring her deep fondness of the tropics through Southeast Asian motifs, eventually achieving her own stylistic identity as well as a reputation as a true still life poet of her time.

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