Born in 1913 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in China, Man Fong was brought to Singapore by his father, a trader, at the age of three. He received his education at St. Andrew's School where he was taught art by the Lingnan master, Mei Yutian, from whom he learned to sketch directly from life. He bagan to paint in oil from the age of sixteen under the tutelage of Huang Qingquan.
The artist's first oil painting, The Shuanglin Temple (K.C. Low and Ho Kung-Shang, The Oil Painting of Lee Man Fong, Art book Co. Ptd., Taiwan, 1984, p. 17.) was executed in 1929 when Man Fong was only sixteen. The painting allowed the artist to demonstrate his matured handling of the composition and perspective. More importantly, he revealed an artistic tendency which would last a lifetime: an assimilation of Eastern and Western techniques.
In 1932 Man Fong left for Jakarta to take up the position of art editor of a Chinese paper, Shibao. He left the following year to work as a designer in the publishing firm, Kolff and Co. . In 1936 he established his own advertising agency, Linto Reclame Bureau, where he worked as a commercial artist. As such, Man Fong always kept in close contact with drawing be it as an artistic passion or as a living tool.
In his early years, generally considered to be the period 1932-46, he painted mainly landscapes and still lifes. His compositions, particularly for his landscapes, present a profound understanding of Western theories of perspective, while at the same time manifest a poetic lyricism close to his Chinese training. Another source of influence came as a result of his easy accessibility to Dutch paintings of the 19th and early 20th century, particularly those by Israels, Mauve, Maris and other painters from The Hague School; these paintings were frequently exhibited in Jakarta at that time. This influence was evident in the artist's handling of a bold, heavily paint-laden brush as well as the use of dark earthy tones,best exemplified by Lot 85 Afternoon Leisure, Aurangbad, India.
Although this assemblage of works by Lee Man Fong is not sufficiently representational in view of his long and productive career, it could nevertheless serve as a microcosm for one to understand the artist's preferences, achievements and strengths. Lot 76 The weaver and Lot 78 Balinese beauty may be considered his prototypical subjects of which he repeated frequently. Likewise, the subject of animals (Lots 82 - 84), which he executed on boards of standard sizes, have come to be considered as one of his most popular subjects. These oil on board works were executed in the medium which offered the artist a chance to integrate his training from the West with his oriental aesthetics, as evidenced by Lot 84 Cockerel where he used quick, successive brush strokes for the feathers of the animals while the composition of the tree branch and foliage are reminiscent of Chinese Flower and leaf painting.
Lot 79 Scenic Soochow and Lot 80 Fishing boats by the River Min, however were executed in a completely traditional Chinese landscape painting style, but using a non-traditional medium. The thin, fine lines which render a simple but poetic composition capture the essence of Chinese painting and is completed with the inclusion of Chinese calligraphy, an integral part of classical Chinese painting.
Many of the artist's works served as records of his travels which were a constant source of inspiration for Man Fong. Lot 85 Afternoon Leisure as well as Lot 80 Fishing boats by the River Min are two very good exemples as to how the scenic beauty has initiated the use of different techniques and mediums.
The inclusion of Lot 77, the 5 volumes of the Presidential Collection of Sukarno, edited by Lee Man Fong testifies to the achievements of the artist who did not restrict himself to painting but extended his talents to the documentation of archives, a record that is indispensable for the study of Southeast Asian art.