In 1984, the New York Times and Art New used the 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 United States where he soon rose to stardom. From the viewpoint of Western audience, Chen's reputed "romantic-realist" works testify to the liberation of Chinese artists from the bondages of political dominance, the artistic translation of their thoughts, emotions and life experience, which foretelling 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 has chosen to attend the oil painting training class, in the mentorship of Yu Yun Jie who was under the instruction by the Soviet artist Konstantin Mefodyevich Maximov during his visiting professorship in China. This period of intense training gave Chen a very solid foundation of realist painting techniques for his later development. In 1980, Chen went to further his studies in the States, where years of study of western paintings enabled him to have a better understanding of the West, consolidating his artistic skills. During his stay abroad, not only did Chen come across Western classical realism, but he also learned and appreciated the major works of modern formalists, such as that of Willem de Kooning. Despite the many choices available, Chen still opted to go through the rigorous training and repeated practice of realistic oil painting, as he believed that realism induces a strong visual experience which could go straight to the hearts of viewers by conjuring up their understanding of the real objects, tinged with their own imagination.
Dr. Armand Hammer, the founder of the renowned Hammer Gallery in New York, met Chen Yifei in 1981. Dr. Hammer was impressed with the artistic talent of Chen. In the autumn of 1982, Chen returned to China to seek for inspiration in the waterside villages
for artistic creation in the waterside villages (Shui Xiang) of Jiangnan, an area in the South of the Yangtze River famous for its scenic beauty. With its unique ambiance, the waterside villages of Jiangnan have earned the reputation as 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 had deepened his love for China, which became more acute and intense than ever. Chen then translated his own memories, emotions, and patriotic sentiments into artistic creativity. Chen Yifei had his first solo exhibition in 1983 at the Hammer Gallery. Dr. Hammer presented a work of Chen to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China at that time, in 1985.
At Home on the Canal (Lot 1027) in 1984 was owned by a collector who had bought it from the Hammer Gallery. Chen Yifei used the life of boatmen in the waterside villages of Jiangnan as his subject matter. Painting with somber olive green as the tonal colour and placing the boat at the center of the canvas, Chen meticulously presents life and the physical hardship of fisherman. The boat carries some bamboo poles and the fisherman is sticking the pole into the river to prepare to catch fish. A flock of ducks in front of the boat implies the liveliness of the river as if telling the fisherman that there would be an adequate amount of fish in the water that day. Evidence of a life of labour is found on the face of the sole figure in the painting, tanned from working outdoor under the sun. People behind the boat, hanged clothes, shoes and cooking utensils on the boat further tell the story of the life of boatmen. The Artist's mastery of technique of frosting with think layers of paint and realistic depiction enriches the texture of the coarse surface of the brick wall beside the river.
The first stages of oil paintings by Chinese artists only began a century ago, but it has been nonetheless developing rapidly with marvellous pace. Chen received the Russian style of artistic education heavily dominated by social realism in subject matter, which had restrained many Chinese artists from making artistic breakthroughs at that time. And yet, his passion for art and aesthetic pursuit led him to break through the strain of traditions, thereby creating a unique brand of "Romantic Realism" infused with the Chinese spirit. Critic Karl Ruhrberg notes 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."1 And his paintings are reputed to be "the cultural bridge between East and West".
1- Marlborough Fine Art, Chen Yifei, "Painting between East and West" by Karl Ruhrebrg, London, UK, 1996.