Significant in the development of modern art history in China, Wang Jiyuan was famous for his proficiency in both Chinese and Western media, including ink painting, watercolour and oil painting. As early as 1919, Wang, an established oil painter and watercolourist in Shanghai, founded the renowned art organization Tien Ma Society in Shanghai with Liu Haisu, to promote Western style painting. Afterwards, he acted as professor and dean of studies in Western painting at the Shanghai Art School ( Shanghai Mei Zhuan), the first professional art academy in China, where he stayed for twelve years and during which he continued to be very active in Shanghai art circles. Accompanied with Liu Haisu, Pan Yuliang and Guan Liang, Wang Jiyuan became a leading figure promoting and tutoring Western oil painting. His efforts in discovering new talent was noted and praised at the time; for example, he personally recommended Chen Chengbo to teach in Shanghai, and spearheaded The First Chinese Female Artist Exhibition for Pan Yuliang, furthering her reputation and spurring Xu Beihong to invite her as a lecturer at the Central University.
From 1926 to 1928, Wang studied and held exhibitions in Tokyo. He moved to the Unites States in 1941 during the Sino-Japanese War, and continued to flourish as an avid art educator, writing many treatises on art techniques and introducing Chinese aesthetic views (Fig. 1). He established the School of Chinese Brushwork through which he promoted Chinese art for twenty years. In the 1970s, Wang held a joint exhibition with Zhang Daqian at the Smithsonian Museum, USA, cementing Wang's reputation and his art in providing a window for the West to understand Chinese art. We are deeply grateful to the Belfield Trust Collection, USA for providing invaluable historic documentation and supporting information from their Wang Jiyuan Archives for our research purposes.
Christie's Hong Kong is proud to offer rare and unique oil paintings by Wang Jiyuan that attests to his versatility in various media and mastery combining necessary techniques across various media. By the end of the 1920s Wang Jiyuan had already been in Europe and Japan, allowing him to further his study of oil painting. Portrait of a Lady (Lot 1133) employs thin layers of oils in limited palette, characteristic of his watercolour works at the time. Distinctive of traditional ink paintings, the monochromatic palette in brown brings to mind fading sepia-toned photographs, and the lively brushstrokes that render the face of the lady as if captures her in a snapshot of a particular moment. Nonetheless, areas of white highlighting the face of the lady are used as a colour suggesting light, rather of 'liu bai' in conventional Chinese ink paintings that represent a void background. Here we see Wang employed Western light and shade to recreate three-dimensionality and volume while maintaining an aura of graceful elegance in a spurious, lofty manner akin to the literati painters. In Still Life and Cat Painting (Lot 1131), the influence of Paul Cezanne is evident in the subject theme and carefully constructed composition in rhythm of forms, lines and colours. Focusing on technical skill and compositional arrangement, the brushstrokes in these are smoother and more meticulously rendered than his earlier works. Without distinct delineation of forms, the objects are modeled in the effect liken to Chinese traditional 'mo gu', or boneless style. The balance of and interaction between straight and curved lines creates visual harmony that also exists in the form of vibrant, elegant gradations of pigments of red, greens and blues. These combinations not only create a splendid visual experience but also result in a delicate but lively poetic aura like that in traditional Chinese birds-and flower or still life themes.
In Self-Portrait in White Shirt (Lot 1132), Wang depicts himself in a three-quarter profile with a piercing look rendered in lively, multi-layered brushstrokes which displays Wang's considerable facility with the medium. Vivacious and bold in its application of paint, yet delicate and multi-faceted in the message behind the artist's confident yet inquisitive eyes, this is Wang's expression of his private, self-searching introspection of a devoted painter in search to marry the nuances and spirit of Western and Oriental art. In both watercolour and oil painting, Wang's rich creations demonstrate the efforts and successes in establishing dialogue between the aesthetic concerns and techniques of Western and Oriental art in the history of 20th century China.