In 1984, the New York Times and Art News used the coined expression 'Romantic Realism' to describe the style of Chinese artist Chen Yifei, a graduate of Shanghai Fine Art School who had completed his artistic education in the States where he soon rose to stardom. From the viewpoint of Western audiences, Chen's reputed "romantic-realist" works testified to the liberation of Chinese artists from the bondages of political dominance, and the artistic translation of their thoughts, emotions and life experience, which staged the blossoming of realistic oil paintings in the kaleidoscopic art scene of modern China.
In 1963, Chen was admitted to Shanghai Fine Art School. He chose to attend the oil painting training class, under the mentorship of Yu YunJie who was under the instruction of the Soviet artist Konstantin Mefodyevich Maximov during his visiting professorship in China. This period of intense training laid out a very solid foundation and basic mastery of realist painting techniques for Chen's later development. In 1980, Chen went to further his studies in the States, where years of study on western paintings enabled him to have a better understanding of the West and allowed him to consolidate his artistic skills. During his stay abroad, Chen not only came across Western classical realism, but also learned and appreciated the major works of modern formalists, such as those of William de Kooning. Despite the many choices available, Chen still opted to go through the rigorous training and repeated practices of realistic oil painting, as he believed that realism induces a strong visual experience that could go straight to the hearts of viewers by conjuring up their understanding of the real objects, tinged with their own imagination.
In the autumn of 1982, Chen returned to China and collected materials for artistic creation in the waterside villages (Shui Xiang) of Jiangnan, which is an area in the South of the Yangtze River famous for its scenic beauty. Since ancient time, with its unique ambiance, the waterside villages of Jiangnan have earned itself the reputation of the "Venice of the East". It also served as a wellspring of inspiration for many poets and painters throughout the history of China. To Chen, these villages by the water were filled with the memories of his youth. The times spent in foreign countries deepened his love for China, which became more acute and intense than ever. Chen then channelled his own memories, emotions and patriotic sentiments into artistic creativity.
A thousand miles of chirping orioles
Crimson contrasting with green,
Waterside villages and hillside ramparts,
And tavern banners flaunting in the wind.
Four hundred and eighty temples
Built in the Southern Dynasties,
How many towers and terraces,
Seen looming in the misty rain?
Du Wu, Jiangnan in Spring
Early Fall (Suzhou) (Lot 520) is a mature piece of art resulted from the many years of in-depth study on Jiangnan waterside villages by the artist. It was displayed in the one-man exhibition of Chen Yifei at the SHIBUYA SEIBU Department Store, Tokyo, in 1989. Applying a delicate technique of frosting with thick layers of colouring, Chen depicts the river as calm as the surface of a mirror, with boats drifting gracefully on top and lined with black tiled dwellings on both banks. These seem to hark back to those moments lingering in his mind which he had missed for years. The shroud of mistiness is portrayed with an equal touch of realism, as if the scene is shrouded in a thin veil, and the smells of silence and serenity diffusing in the air. The artist has cut a facet of the scene into the painting with both profound beauty and elegant simplicity. The stone bridge across the river, and its reflection, is an ingenious design employed by the artist, to add a 'circle' to complete the composition in perfect harmony. Chen has a penchant for the use of soft, delicate lines and dark, dense colours. Brimmed with a nostalgic ambience, the painting causes a poetic sensation that would pluck the viewers' heart string as if it has been cleansed by the water of the misty river.
The bud of oil paintings by Chinese artists only began a century ago, but it has been nonetheless rapidly developing with marvellous pace. Chen received a Russian-style artistic education that is dominated by social realism, which restrained many past Chinese artists from making artistic breakthroughs at that time. And yet, his passion for art and aesthetics led him to break tradition and, thereby, creating a unique brand of "Romantic Realism" infused with the Chinese spirit. Critic Karl Ruhrberg noted that in Chen's paintings, "the tradition of naturalism behind his execution reflects his years of meticulous study of western paintings. Thus his work is poised between past and present, between East and West, between Asia and America". Chen's paintings are reputed to be "the cultural bridge between East and West".