A leading figure of Chinese modern art, Yan Wenliang was among the first group of Chinese artists educated in Europe in Western painting. He was a strong advocate of Realism, stating that "Reality comes before beauty" and "Creativity is possible if and only if one is lavishly equipped with the skills of sketching and oil painting". He thoroughly investigated the practices of classical oil paintings in the West, especially their application of light and colour in paintings. Yan's interest in light can be traced back to his twoyear apprenticeship at the Shanghai Commercial Press in his youth. In the copperplate printing studio of the Commercial Press, the light shining from outside the windows was greatly blocked by large machines, resulting in a complex variation between light and shadow under everyday objects such as teapots, leather shoes and umbrellas. This effect of light soon became the subject of Yan's paintings. He was additionally interested in depicting the complex and beautiful way in which refracted light from gas lamps bounced off glass sheets and formed a reflective image. Moreover, the exquisite art of engraving, which is done within a limited area and demands a very orderly composition, exerted a subtle influence on how Yan learned to compose and execute his delicate, small-scale oil paintings.
In 1928, under the encouragement of Xu Beihong, Yan temporarily put aside his duty as Headmaster of the Suzhou Fine Arts School, and went to study in France, completely devoting himself to painting. After arriving in Paris, in addition to furthering his studies of classical oil paintings of 16th century Europe, which he had already been exposed to in China, Yan became interested in Impressionism. In Yan's opinion the Impressionists' pursuit to faithfully capture landscape in their paintings, could be regarded as a further elaboration of Realism. Despite their vast stylistic differences, their concept to capture nature and light truthfully was similar, only the Impressionist painters no longer used landscapes as the subject of plain narratives, but showed greater concern for the application of colours and brushwork. As such Yan sought to incorporate the artistic spirit of Impressionism exemplified in its brushwork, depiction of light and colour with the style of Realism to which he devoted.
During his two-year stay in Europe, Yan rigorously studied the compositional and painterly techniques of Realist painters such as single point perspectives and the rendering of light and shadow. In addition, he also immersed himself in the Impressionist painters' bold use of colour. In 1930, Yan returned to China and attempted to incorporate the language of oil painting into the exquisite aesthetics of the East, finding a balance between his studies in Europe and his Eastern heritage. He restored the tradition of Chinese paintings by refining the techniques of meticulous brushwork paintings, and then incorporated them into his favoured landscape paintings, resulting in an overall different effect from his powerful and bold brush work seen in the paintings executed in Europe. On the importance of landscape painting, Yan commented that "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 euphoric, buoyant, proactive and uplifting feelings." To present beauty in its most genuine form, Yan set out his exhaustive, methodical inquisition into the language of oils as represented by colour, composition, dexterity, light and shadow, perspective, and materials.
Magnificent Landscape (Lot 1016) is the fruit of his studies. An apposite composition is presented, as the artist opined, "each and every scenic object has to be compact and inextricable; they as a whole should be firmly rooted, manifest vigour, and not void." The artist depicts a romantic and engrossing scenery of the setting sun shining upon the stream in a tranquil and elegant mountain forest. Possessing profound and thorough comprehension of the effects of sunlight at dusk, Yan uses bright colours he derived from the Impressionists, and paints the mountain with coppery gold colour permeating through orange hues, to manifest rays of the setting sun, reminding us the naturalistic, exquisite and romantic use and treatment of light depicted by John Atkinson Grimshaw, a famous British painter in the 19th century (Fig. 1 and 2). This mountain range rendered with a unique colour palette reflects Yan's active exploration of light and colour application instead of passively imitating objects as they are in nature. In depicting the main patterns of light, the thematic atmosphere of the painting can be unified. Yan attached importance to manifesting the landscape's internal spirit, and pursuing a poetic mood exemplified by light and colour. Dazzling rays of light and the mysterious shadow, when rendered by Yan, were unforgettably beautiful. When the sun begins to set, people never hurry; instead they linger and enjoy the surrounding view, unwilling to leave the sunset behind. Magnificent Landscape captures this fascinating moment, andtakes advantage of the scene to express the artist's emotion, recalling the lyrical lines written by famous Chinese poet Li Shangyin in his Ascending the Pleasurable Plateau,
'Sublime is the beauty of the sun while yet unset,
Too soon, alas, is dusky darkness to follow.'
In Magnificent Landscape , there is a wide range of mountain, in which its shape is quite similar to that in the Tang and Song style landscape paintings, and one may inevitably associate it with the undulating hills in Chinese painter Fan Kuan's Sitting Alone by the Stream (Fig. 3). Differing from the multiple perspectives common in Chinese painting, Yan employs one-point perspective of Western oil paintings to reproduce the Chinese landscape. Yan does not aim to manifest the immense grandeur exhibited in traditional paintings; instead, he yearns to present the exquisite details of every object in natural landscape painting. As Yan remarked, painters "ought to look at small objects with equal scrutiny as the large, depicting each with equal detail". Within the clear composition, Yan renders every detail with devoted consideration as seen in Magnificent Landscape where the trees by the stream, its tree trunk and branches, leaves, weeds and stones are all painted with meticulous, fine brush strokes. Every aspect is extremely refined and exquisite and painted with utmost respect. Magnificent Landscape also epitomizes Yan's concern of appropriate composition, and his theory that "scenes and objects in the painting must all be closely associated, they cannot be floating or dislocated, nor should they be uprooted from the rest of the painting."i This painting shows a clear depiction of a foreground, middle and background. The tall branches on the left extend towards the right, guiding the viewers' eyes from the left to the mountain ranges on the right. Stones of uneven sizes in the stream also rhythmically guide viewers to follow the valley along the stream towards the scenic spot in the back. In Magnificent Landscape , every detail has been made clear, spacing and density are evenly arranged, harmoniously balancing overall scenery and the objects within. As a whole, Yan effectively leads the viewer into the mountain forest at sunset, in which they wander peacefully and enjoy the scene at leisure.