In 1984, the New York Times and Art News coined the term "romantic realism" to describe the style of Shanghai artist Chen Yifei, a graduate of the Shanghai Fine Art School and a rising star in the United States. The acclaims given by Chen's audiences in the West testified to how Chinese artists in the '80s managed to break away from themes of political dominance, and used art as a vehicle to instilling their own thoughts, emotions and experience and open up a new and flourishing school of Chinese realist oil painting.
In 1963, Chen was admitted to Shanghai Fine Art School to study oil painting and became a student of Yu Yun Jie, who was in turn was taught by Soviet artist Konstantin Mefodyevich Maximov during his visiting professorship in China. This period of intense training enabled Chen to establish a solid foundation on his techniques in realist painting. In 1980, Chen went to further his studies in the United States. In the summer of 1982, Chen decided to travel to Europe, the birthplace of Western oil painting, during which he saw western masterpieces at close distance, which allowed him to deepen his understanding of Western oil painting and strengthened his painting skills and technique. In the autumn of the same year, Chen returned to China to the waterside villages (Shui Xiang) of Jiangnan in search for artistic inspiration. With their unique ambience, the tranquil waterside villages of Jiangnan have since ancient times earned itself the reputation as "Venice of the East"; they have also served as a wellspring of inspiration for poets and artists throughout Chinese history. For Chen, these villages were filled with memories of his youth. Chen's love for his motherland was only intensified with his time living abroad; he then translated his own memories, emotions, and patriotic sentiments into his own artistic creativity.
In 1983, Chen Yifei completed his nostalgic and sentimental Waterside Villages series and was invited by the renowned Hammer Gallery in New York to hold a solo exhibition Chen Yifei - Images of China. In the exhibition catalogue, Hammer Gallery praised Chen as "being devoted, an essential element when an artist is developing his own style, and it is what makes an artist a master". Still Canal (Lot 1055) and Nightfall Suzhou China (Lot 1053) are two out of the 40 presented paintings in this exhibition. They are the early works of the series, which adeptly show the fundamental creative elements of the artist.
Still Canal and Nightfall Suzhou China present not a delicate scenic view of Jiangnan to their audience, but a spirit as if emitted from a mountain temple. This aura was rendered by the artist's sensitive handling of light. Chen Yifei acquired the technique that classic realistic painters such as Rembrandt employed to tackle light. The artist's meticulous skill of frosting with thick layers of paint and fine brushstrokes are used to depict the daybreak in a deep autumn day. Rays of light at dawn penetrate the haze and are reflected into perplexing twilight. Dawn is the loneliest moment of a day, and in the tranquil water villages portrayed in Still Canal, a steep contrast is made with the noise and activities of the canal when little junks come and go during daytime. Chen divides his canvas into segments, with brick houses placed along the two sides of the long canal. The artist simplifies the complex imagery, where scattered yet orderly brick houses of black tiles and white wall rhythmically form vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines on the canvas and create a sense of aesthetic. Two trees reside next to the junk; one leafless tree reveals the enchanting romance of deep autumn; the other with scattered red foliage, exposes the curved lines of the branches which radiate a dynamic sense of energy. The balanced lines and ponderous colour tone not only give an impressive visual impact but also touch our heart and purify our soul, and let people indulge in a moment of peacefulness.
Nightfall Suzhou China depicts the arrival of the night after sunset. Despite the disconsolate chill in the evening, night time possesses a unique sense of beauty, which Chen captures to present like a frozen piece of memory. Boaters return home after a day of work, leaving their wooden junks tranquilly floating on the canal. The still canal water surface reflects the houses along the river, creating a dazzling and poetic scenery. The bold diagonal line elegantly divided the canvas. The pole and bow of the boat connect the top, centre and bottom of the painting and echo harmoniously with every object on the canvas. The skillful technique to achieve a frosting effect by the layering of thick oil paint and the well-trained realistic painting skills vividly depict the rough texture of the surface of the wall of the brick houses along the river. Chen prefers likes simple subject matters and feels that new pleasures in life come with ordinary things and happenings. Seeing beauty in all that is around him, Chen believes that beauty is the common language of the world that never fails to enrich people's life. Through the exquisite and enchanting scenes that Chen portrays, we get to experience a sense of beauty that we neglect in our everyday life.
Chen Yifei was not satisfied in only depicting the Jiangnan water villages; instead he persistently searched for artistic breakthroughs. In 1988, Chen visited Tibet and Gansu for the first time and experienced the charm of the mysterious and unique life of the Tibetan people. Compared with the peaceful and amiable feeling of the water villages in Jiangnan, the coarse lifestyle in Tibet perfectly complemented Chen's further artistic development. In 1990, Chen began to paint his Tibet series. He carried on with the delicate handling of light which he used in the water villages series as seen in Leaving the Temple (Lot 1054) and further enriches the painting with the use of gold, tangerine and brown colour which symbolizes the mystery and history of the highland, embodied in the landmark of Tibet depicted. Not to overwhelm viewer's visual experience of the overall imagery, Chen renders the architecture of the temple aptly without excessive depiction of minute details. Instead, the artist uses raw brushstrokes to depict the ground, while he employs delicate brushstrokes on the architecture. Encapsulating the essence and posture of the figure wearing Tibetan costume whom just passes by the temple, Chen captures a particular moment onto the canvas as if it is suspended from a movie scene.