In 1984, the New York Times and Art News coined the term "romantic realism" to describe the style of Chinese artist Chen Yifei, a graduate of the Shanghai Fine Art School who was a rising star in the United States. To win such acclaim in the West testified to the way Chinese artists in the 1980s were beginning to transcend the dominance of political ideology; as art became a vehicle for their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, a new and flourishing school of Chinese realist oil painter came into bloom.
Chen Yifei once credited his mother for providing his greatest artistic inspiration. A woman of faith, she was responsible for his trips to church on religious holidays, where the entire atmosphere-the deep, resonant sound of the organ, the harmony of the children's choir, the images of the Holy Mother, and the stained glass panels in the walls and entrance-sparked the young boy's enthusiasm for art. Later in lifelistening to Western composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach with his wife, he was inspired during the 1980s to create a series of paintings featuring classical musicians. Most of the works in the series feature female musicians performing in duets or as soloists on the violin, piano, clarinet, or French horn. The work featured in this spring's Evening Sale, Chen's String Quartet (Lot 1002), is a large scale work Chen chose as a backdrop for a memorable photograph (Fig.1), and is a perfect representation of his music series.
String Quartet conveys the unity of thought and feeling among four female quartet musicians totally absorbed in the world of their music. Chen's highly developed technique presents their thick tresses, smooth white skin, and expressions of rapt concentration with a vivid realism that brings them almost close enough to touch. His finely detailed modeling gives these figures a strong sculptural feel, and his soft lines and meticulously organized composition create visual harmony as our eyes move across multiple images of hands meeting bows and instruments. Chen's skillful handling of light also creates a natural focus on the player's faces and imparts an atmosphere of austere and refined beauty to the work. In addition to being a work of striking surface realism, String Quartet also projects deep inner feeling in a sharply focused work that captures both physical gesture and underlying spirit.
Chen makes a bold choice in selecting black for his background. The performers wearing formal black stage dresses, seem to melt into its mild glow in a way that once again highlights the outlines of their faces, their expressions, and the elegant lines of their arms. At the same time, it sets them at one remove from any sense of a man-made interior space, symbolizing the idea that this kind of beauty and harmony possesses a timeless, everlasting quality of its own. Chen delicately applies thick layers of oil and polish subtly for a frosted effect, transporting the viewer into his deeply romantic and poetic world of music and beauty.
Chen Yifei's paintings of musicians express his search for the underlying relationships between things and his exploration of the connection between music and painting. The series reflect his concern with a pursuit of beauty, and the ability to embrace the aesthetic appearances of different cultures. Regardless of time and era, one's life experience of the appreciation of beauty always brings greater understanding of one's self. Chen Yifei devoted his life to the development of unique visual effects in painting, believing that art, "in addition to providing works for appreciation and brightening our mood, must also have a deeper social function. Art is not just the creation of visually pleasing works; it should also help maintain a beautiful environment, exemplify humane love and morality, and purify our hearts. " Chen Yifei's works do indeed find a place deep in our hearts, and even more, for many they serve as a cultural bridge between East and West.