Born in a poor family of farmers and stone engravers in Meixian of the Guangdong province, Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) exhibited interest and talent in painting as a child. In 1919, he received a scholarship which enabled him to study painting in France and then in Germany, where the oeuvre of Expressionists such as Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Erich Heckel (1883-1970) deeply inspired and influenced his artistic direction. He was also fascinated by the boldness and the range of hues shown in the works from the Modernist and Fauvist movements. Lin’s study and journey in Europe became perhaps the most crucial factor in shaping his artistic vision and his definition of what 20th century Chinese painting ought to be.
Lin Fengmian was as much of a visionary artist as he was an insightful art educator. At the encouragement of Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), Lin Fengmian returned to China and served as the principal of the National Beijing Fine Art School in 1926. He invited artists such as Qi Baishi (1864-1957) and the French artist Andre Claudot (1892-1982) to serve as faculty during his tenure so students could broaden their horizon with both Chinese and European painting traditions. In 1928, Lin Fengmian co-founded the National Academy of Art (now known as the China Academy of Art) with Cai Yuanpei in Hangzhou, which became an incubator for many renowned artists of the 20th century with notable alumni such as Li Keran (1907-1989), Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), and Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013).
The Irving Collection’s Lady depicts a seated woman in blue holding a white lotus with both hands, accompanied by a slender vase of flowers, which is one of his favorite motifs and one of his most recognizable themes. The selection of a square composition—a characteristic choice by Lin—serves as a rejection of the usual shape of the medium (a horizontal or vertical rectangle) dictated by traditional Chinese painting’s format of a handscroll or hanging scroll. Lin uses sinuous, soft lines to delineate the gauzy outer robe of the lady and the outline of her body, which takes up a sizable portion of the scene. While the composition is anchored by the mass of the seated lady diagonally across the right half, it is balanced by the tall vase with blossoms on the left.
More elements hinting at the influence of the European art can be observed here. Different depths are established into the pictorial space by the layering of the lady, a cushion, a vase of flowers, and a window with light-filtering sheer curtain. Situating a figure in front of or near a window has been a widely used technique for centuries in European portraiture. The intentional disproportion between the objects and the figure recalls the still-life paintings of the French Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Yet, Lin Fengmian also adheres to his Chinese roots simultaneously. His depiction of the lady harks back to the elegant and slender rendition of female figures who often wear a wistful expression while gazing at an object, popular during the Six Dynasties (AD 220-589). The wispy bang on her forehead is a demonstration of calligraphic strokes (with a dry brush), the unmistakable singular characteristic of Chinese brush painting. The simplified lines used to draw her hands and face reflect the influence of the apsaras painted on the walls of the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang.
Lin Fengmian’s Lady demonstrates not only his technical virtuosity and whimsical playfulness, it embodies his artistic ideal of absorbing both the traditional Chinese painting and European painting traditions. It is a testament to his innovative vision and a preservation of his signature creation of the timeless female figure.