Born in Xiamen, China, in 1917, Cheong Soo Pieng received formal art education in traditional Chinese ink painting at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, and later attended the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai where he was exposed to modern Western artistic styles such as abstraction, cubism and surrealism.
Cheong Soo Pieng was a key member of the pioneer group of artists responsible for the establishment and development of the Nanyang style of art in Singapore in the early 1950s. With his proficiency in various art styles, and the ability to express them with a local sensitivity, Cheong's body of work has been integral in tracing the influence of Chinese, as well as Western art in the history of 20th century painting in Southeast Asia.
Arriving in Singapore in 1946, Cheong sought a continuation of the modern Chinese art movement that was taking place in Shanghai within his new surroundings in tropical Southeast Asia. Along with his contemporaries, Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang, and Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong founded the Nanyang School, the style of art that was largely concerned with the integration of traditional Chinese art forms with modern developments in Western art, depicting the vivid context of Southeast Asia as their main subject matter.
By The River II represents a stage in Cheong's oeuvre where he experienced a renewed interest in Chinese ink painting. Returning to China after 30 years, Cheong visited Guilin in 1979 and was inspired by the vast Chinese landscape and its representation in traditional Chinese painting. This melding of Eastern and Western techniques to achieve a unified visual impact was one of the key desires of the Nanyang style of art, and is elegantly and superbly achieved here.
The figures in the foreground of the painting indicate a continuation of Cheong's unique depiction of local women. With their delicate and elongated bodies, Cheong developed his characteristic stylisation of traditional village women through an appreciation of the beauty found in the simplicity of line and form. By The River II is an elaboration of this early fascination with the pastoral tranquility found in Nanyang and its surrounding regions, but expressed to a level of maturity and subtlety.
The painting develops from a rich historical lineage of Chinese landscape painting. Cheong's brush is laid onto canvas with a lightness and elegance that is reminiscent of the grace and loftiness in Song Dynasty paintings, such as Fan Kuan's masterpiece Travellers among Mountains and Streams. The early and mid-20th century saw a particularly fertile period of the transformation in Chinese painting, with the works of Xu Beihong and Wu Guanzhong coming to define a new expression in Chinese landscape painting, combining the very essence of Chinese painting with the best received traditions of Western painting. By the 1970s when Cheong Soo Pieng's By The River II was painted, it had become de rigueur for an aspiring artist working within Chinese landscape painting to continue expanding the scope of its pictorial conventions.