Among the first artists who had studied abroad, Li Tiefu (1869-1952) had traveled to Northern America and Europe as early as in 1885, earlier than his peers Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian and Lu Shibai. During his period abroad of almost forty years, Li participated in revolutionary activities led by Sun Yat-sen, studied fine art and worked in the educational field. He also studied under the two renowned American painters William Chase (1849-1916) and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Still Life with Cabbage and Fish (Lot 1381) is an exemplary work typical of his life-long specialization in painting still lifes and depicting domestic objects.
Li admired Chase greatly: "All of his best work has a sense of freshness. Under his brush, the fishes seem to be still jumping and shaking." Fishes also became one of his beloved subjects. In Still life with Cabbage and Fish, Li expertly renders the luster of the plump fish belly, the fresh crispness of the vegetable, and the texture of the hard shellfish, fully exhibiting the artist's skill in close observation of nature. His sophisticated brushstrokes and portrayal of light and shadows define the forms of the fish and vegetable. Although the subject of still life has existed for a long time in art history, Li's works reveal an inherent grace and portrayal of the animate spirit in the objects stressed by the Chinese literati, which differs from the approach of capturing the fleeting moment in reality that some Western painters strive for. Li studied and practiced traditional prose, poetry and calligraphy incessantly during his forty years overseas, and an essence of this traditional training is revealed in his naturalistic still lifes done in a Western idiom. The painter had for many times quoted the discourse on calligraphy by the late Ming calligrapher, Fu Shan: "Rather be rustic than refined, rather be ugly than charming, rather be fractured than facile, and rather be sincere than contrived." This is also a portrait of Li's artistic creation. From his pure and honest depiction of still lifes, we can clearly see the artist's artist concept based on rustic aesthetics.