"Colours that radiate a lust for life depict the timelessness of the soul and the body."
-Shiy De-Jinn, World of Portrait
The art of Shiy De-Jinn is one that tells a story of restless artistic pursuit, of a progression toward a highly distinctive artistic expression, and of a persisting legacy in the development of Chinese modern art. Born in a small town in China’s Sichuan province, Shiy De-Jinn soon found himself at the Hangzhou National College of Art after scoring first in the college’s entrance exam. Throughout his studies, he continued to perfect his skills in China’s classical art forms while simultaneously being exposed to the practices of Western artists such as Picasso and Matisse. He later found mentorship in Lin Feng-Mian and studied under the tutelage of Chinese modern masters such as Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun. When he graduated in 1948, Shiy De-Jinn traveled to Taiwan to take up a position as an art instructor at the National Chiayi Senior High School. The vastly different landscape, as well as the independence from his mentors, teachers, and friends galvanized Shiy De-Jinn to establish his own style. It was during this period Shiy began his explorations into portraiture.
Consequently, the 1950s became the era in which Shiy De-Jinn’s distinctive artistic language began to take form. During this time, Taiwanese artistic circles were undergoing a wave of Westernization with an immense interest in abstract art. Shiy De-Jinn was also swept into this current of abstraction, often rendering his subjects against an abstracted background. It was his fascination with people that prompted his artistic pursuit in portraiture during this period. Shiy De-Jinn often looked to paint the people around him: friends, fellow artists, and his students. Through these portraits, he documented the friendships and, most importantly, the heartfelt communications that words alone could not convey, leaving behind a legacy of portraits that became archive for the relationships he forged throughout his career.
Portrait of Jeannette (Lot 28) depicts one of Shiy De-Jinn’s most elegant subjects, American painter Jeannette Caviness, who studied under the artist in Taiwan during the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Fig.1) Jeannette Caviness and her husband, Colonel Roy B. Caviness, moved to Taiwan in 1958 when the couple were stationed on the American Air Force base in Taipei. During this time until their departure in 1961, Jeannette was an active member of the artistic circles in Taiwan. Her work was included in exhibitions in Taipei, alongside other works by American painters on the island, even garnering awards in juried shows. (Fig. 2) It is easy to see the influence of Shiy’s love for portraiture, as well as his adept brushwork and bold colouring in Jeannette’s compositions. (Fig. 3) Through her studies with Shiy, Jeannette witnessed major developments in his career: his involvement in the fifth iteration of San Paolo Biennial, his exhibition of works at Taiwan’s National Museum of History, and an invitation by the U.S. State Department to visit the United States. While Shiy painted many of his American friends and students, this portrait (then titled Portrait of Mrs. Caviness ) was selected by the artist to be featured in a 1968 catalogue of his work published by Shiy’s studio.
Portrait of Jeannette reflects Shiy’s innovative visual lexicon; this artistic insight later defined the master’s uniquely creative approach to his work. Whilst working on portraits, it was as if Shiy could look directly into the soul and spirit of a person with an acute power of observation, instead of merely delineating the person’s outward looks. As an active member of the art community in Taiwan, Jeannette’s smart, vibrant, and outgoing personality is apparent to spectators in both Shiy’s portrait of her and in the photos taken during that time (Fig. 4). Shiy zeroed in on her character, portraying it deftly through the use of scarlet and inky black to render the background, accentuate Jeannette’s vivacity. The abstract background highlighted the different movements Shiy observed in Chinese and Western art development during his travels in Europe and the United States (Fig. 5), which served as fuel for his creative breakthroughs; that focus was translated into artistic finesse in his paintings. The sincerity and elegance of Jeanette’s subtle smile serve as a powerful testament to Shiy’s virtuosity as he unleashed his unequaled artistic prowess with confidence and vision.
In 1959, Shiy created a sketch featuring Jeanette painting in earnest (Fig. 6, Asian 20th Century Art, Day Sale, Lot 415). Shiy’s familiarity with Jeanette’s idiosyncrasies is beautifully attested as he captures her utter focus on the canvas, her ease and confidence with the paintbrush: using strong, steelwire like silhouettes, he outlines Jeanette’s slender, long body and prominent, graceful facial features. Two years later, the oil portrait Shiy painted suggests that his command of silhouetting—refined through the medium and colour—has departed from the decisive and swift lines inspired by Bernard Buffet (Fig. 7), becoming more sinuous and calligraphic; besides the developments in using line, in the painting Shiy focused more on the subtle treatment of light, dark, and shadows with different chromatic application. Portrayed and highlighted in blue, Jeanette’s calm gaze feels piercing and attentive. Heavily influenced by the brilliant of colours around him in subtropical Taiwan, Shiy borrowed different hues to underscore the contrast between light and shadow to magnify the brightness of his subject. Jeanette’s soft, blond hair, and translucent, fair skin are rendered gracefully by Shiy’s proficient use of subtle, almost shimmering, colouration.
Shiy has mused, ‘as much as we come into this world with a spirit, body and soul, artistic skills also come into being with the touch of life. This life becomes a timeless work of art.’ Portrait of Jeannette is a testament to the warm, lasting friendship between the mentor and mentee. The pair shared many mutual friends, who were also painted by Shiy; Jeanette Caviness, along with this circle of Americans abroad, was fortunate to be gifted with the portrait and sketch of herself, along with an additional painting, Deer in the Forest (Fig. 8, Asian 20th Century Art, day sale, Lot 409). A similar composition (sold by Christie’s in May 2014) was given to Jeannette’s close friend who had also studied under Shiy, again bearing a lasting testament to this warm circle of friendship. One can speculate that the standing deer is meant to represent Shiy himself, watching over his two American students. Moreover, Portrait of Jeanette represents the master’s heartfelt outpouring of soul into his craft as he settled into a deeper understanding of life.