PAN YULIANG (1895-1977)
PAN YULIANG (1895-1977)

Yellow Flowers in a Vase

PAN YULIANG (1895-1977)
Yellow Flowers in a Vase
signed in Chinese; dated ‘66’ (upper right)
ink and colour on paper
73 x 64 cm. (28 3⁄4 x 25 1⁄4 in.)
Painted in 1966
Acquired directly from the artist and thence by descent to the present owner

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Lot Essay

"In the night, a light frost gathered on the tiles; The plantain stalks are breaking, lotuses wither and droop. Only the chrysanthemums at the eastern fence endure the cold; Their new blooms, brilliant with color, make the morning brighter." - Ode to Chrysanthemums, Bai Juyi

In traditional Chinese culture, the chrysanthemum was one of the “Four Gentlemen Among Flowers”, symbols of both noble character and longevity. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Tao Yuanming imbued the chrysanthemum with a lofty character that he saw as both pure and indomitable. In Ode to Chrysanthemums, Tang poet Bai Juyi uses the withering of the lotuses and plantains in the first frost as a foil, highlighting the chrysanthemum's tenacious endurance as it stands by the east fence in the cold; for him it metaphorically represents a person of high moral character, and the elegant demeanor of someone not sullied by contact with the world.


Pan Yuliang loved the chrysanthemum, and it remained with her as a constant and illuminating presence throughout her artistic career. During the several decades of that career, she excelled at painting themes as various as nudes, portraits, still lifes, and scenic landscapes, yet she returned constantly to the subject of the chrysanthemum. She frequently made chrysanthmums the featured subjects of her still lifes, and they were an important prescence that adorned even her own self-portraits. Yellow Flowers in a Vase is a work in colored ink, dating from the year 1966, when Pan Yuliang was already 71 years old. She had also at that time lived in France for 30 years, and everything about this painting, from its subject to her choice of medium, reflects a very deep longing for her native land. At the same time, it evinces the practiced maturity of style of this history-making female artist in her later years.

Chrysanthemums held an individual and personal meaning for Pan Yuliang. Growing chrysanthemums had been a pastime for her when she lived in Shanghai with her husband, Pan Zanhua, and thus the chrysanthemums that appear in her works often symbolize her longing for her husband and her former home. Yellow chrysanthemums are imbued with her feelings for the family and homeland to which she had said good-bye more than 30 years previously. The deep feeling and sense of nostalgia flowing through this still life have given it a lasting meaning and a life of its own.


During the 1960s, Pan Yuliang was frequently active in the US. First, in 1963, she held a solo exhibition at the China Institute in New York, which then traveled to San Francisco; then, in 1967, she took part in a group exhibit entitled Modern Chinese Brushwork, along with Zhang Daqian and Wang Jiyuan, at the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts. Pan had originally studied under Wang Jiyuan after entering the Shanghai School of Fine Arts in 1918, while Zhang Daqian, who referred to her as 'Big Sister Yuliang,' was one of her close acquaintances in the art world. Wang Jiyuan moved permanently to the US in 1941, where he founded the New York School of Chinese Brushwork. At that time, a member of the family associated with The Belfield Trust Collection, the present owner of this Pan Yuliang work, taught at that school, and along with Zhang Daqian, was a member of its board of directors. The discerning taste of this family member led her to collect numerous fine works by Zhang Daqian, Pan Yuliang, and Wang Jiyuan during this period. The family of the current owner had a close association with the artist, and on behalf of Wang Jiyuan preserved a number of letters written in the hand of Pan Yuliang herself. Pan Yuliang's output of original works was not large; the current owner was happy to acquire this work in the 1960s and valued it to the extent that the work has been in the same family collection ever since. A work on the same theme as this, Pan's White Chrysanthemums , resides in the collection of the Anhui Museum, an indication of the museumcollection quality of this Yellow Chrysanthemums.


Arriving in Europe to continue her studies, Pan Yuliang was inculcated with a classical, academic education, but with her own Eastern outlook she developed a more unique, personal style, creating works that fused Chinese and Western sensibilities. This style is embodied especially in the still life paintings she produced beginning in the 1950s. Yellow Flowers in a Vase depicts the delicate beauty and warmth of yellow chrysanthemums in full bloom in a blue vase. The table is covered with a floral-print tablecloth, on which are set several thread-bound books — which we can just make out to be volumes of Tang poetry — and a porcelain teacup and tea bowl. Pan deliberately leaves the background behind the chrysanthemums undefined, while her manner of arranging the objects in the composition and her special handling of them bring to the work a strong Eastern atmosphere.

But there is much more to this work than its expression of the artist's nationality: in Pan Yuliang's presentation of the diverse objects in her still life, we see for the first time in the history of modern Chinese art an artist introducing a photographic element, the concept of a visual focal point, as a means of expressing scenic depth within a twodimensional medium. The flowers and the vase of the foreground serve as this focal point, as she sets them out with finely detailed and dense brushwork, while the books and the stems and leaves that extend behind are depicted more vaguely, so as not to detract from this focus of attention. Pan's innovative approach resembles the use of depth of field techniques in photography, and produces a sharply defined sense of space even within the reserved and quietly elegant colors of her composition. At the same time, Yellow Flowers in a Vase successfully unites elements drawn from both East and West, from antiquity and the present day, and from tradition and modernity, in a single work of art.


Western academic painting theories prescribe rigorous methods by which warm and cool colors and light and shadow can be used to create a sense of space. Pan Yuliang's paintings, however, show she clearly did not feel restricted by these rules. With fleet, overlapping brushstrokes of varying lengths to depict vase, tablecloth, and tea bowls, she seems to weave ink and color together to construct a sense of penetration into space. To regard Pan Yuliang's yellow chrysanthemums in colored ink next to the painting of sunflowers by Van Gogh, we see how both let themselves indulge in uninhibited expressions of their subjects; if Van Gogh's strike the viewer as passionate or even unruly, Pan Yuliang's instead show a fine balance of tension and relaxation, more inwardly directed and self-contained.

In Western classical painting techniques, lines often disappear into the other elements of a painting; here however, by subtle use of the ease with which lines extend and turn in the ink medium, Pan Yuliang makes line an instrument through which she expresses the textures of her still life. Pan's handling of backgrounds in the ink medium can also be seen here, as she explores the possibility of uniting textured strokes from Chinese painting and calligraphy with Western brushwork. Her short, urgent, criss-crossing brushstrokes produce varying densities of color, and as in the impetuous 'cursive' style of calligraphy, the emphasis is on freedom and expressiveness. Traditional Chinese ink-wash painting held there were five shades of black, and Pan Yuliang here employs variations of 'charred, dense, heavy, light, and transparent,' giving her lines the proper character to express relative distances to create a pleasing still-life grouping. Lin Fengmian, in his own Chrysanthemums, treats space as a blank area. He 'substitutes black for white', which is to say he sets his vase and flower within a black background of indeterminate depth. By contrast, Pan Yuliang's criss-crossing brushwork creates an abstract background; she introduces into her ink painting the concept of a sensed source of light, despite the fact that the notion of depicting light itself was largely lacking in traditional Chinese painting. Pan applies light colors around the borders of objects and makes skillful use of empty space to bathe her subject within a soft halo of light — an advanced experiment in rediscovering some elements of Western classicism, even in the Eastern medium of ink.

In the fall of 2018, the Asia Society presented Hong Kong's first solo exhibition of works by Pan Yuliang, displaying valuable pieces from both the Anhui Museum and the Musée Cernuschi of Paris, and providing a high degree of recognition for her status as an artist. Pan Yuliang once said, 'A Chinese artist who studies Western painting but does not join it to their own Chinese tradition, who does not create their own unique style, that is not someone who really aspires to the profession of artist, nor is it an artist who can expect much future success.' Her forward-looking experiments with line, color, and space in her colored ink paintings are all represented in this Yellow Flowers in a Vase. It is a model of how to join the finest of East and West together in a successful artistic synthesis.

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