The work of Zeng Fanzhi has been noted for both his expressionist style and his disciplined interrogations into the underlying tensions facing China's new cosmopolitan classes. Zeng established himself as a painter with his famous Mask series, in which the figures hide their anxieties and conflicting emotions beneath the veneer of a cool white and inscrutable mask. Zeng's series adeptly satirized China's new social tensions, new ambitions, and "the clumsy motives and deportment of the upper-class" (Zeng, quoted in L. Pi, Behind the Mask, 2006 at http://china.shanghartgallery.com/galleryarchive/texts/id/159).
In the series of portraits that followed the Mask series, including Portrait No. 1, Zeng becomes more direct. His subjects remove their masks and are seated alone, and Zeng seems less concerned with the frivolity of social personae and more concerned with mortality itself. The influence of German expressionism and portraiture traditions remains apparent; figures are left unfinished, their flesh raw and exposed, lit almost religiously but isolated in the unpainted linen of the canvas. Zeng's concerns have matured along with his techniques, and here he has moved past his concerns with social perceptions, delving more deeply into the frailty of life itself.