Georgette Chen (1907-1992)
GEORGETTE CHEN (Singaporean, 1907-1992)

Still Life with Tropical Fruits

GEORGETTE CHEN (Singaporean, 1907-1992)
Still Life with Tropical Fruits
signed 'Chen' and dated '67' (lower left)
oil on canvas
54 x 64 cm. (21 1/4 x 25 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1967
Acquired directly from the artist


Georgette Chen is an exceptional figure within modern Asian art, first and foremost for her undisputed mastery in painting, but also her fascinating life story which provides great depth and character to her art: daughter of a progressive yet patriotic Chinese family, a bohemian young painter in Paris, wife of an unconventional statesman; and finally, artist, teacher and inspiration in the brave new world of recently-independent Singapore.
Chen's works are renowned for their refinement and sophistication. Her artistic hallmarks are immaculate brushwork, a muted pastel colour palette, and an orderly composition which is nonetheless highly expressive in placement, rendition of lines, and surprising areas of dense colors in comparison to the subtle backgrounds. Chen has won especial regard for being a female painter within the male-dominated art circles of the mid-20th century. Aside from her gender, this is also due to the perceived femininity of her compositions: smaller-scale interior studies of flowers, fruit, and household objects, with great attention applied to details. However her subject matters and painterly method likely have more to do with Chen's Parisian training, love of well-ordered beauty, and personal circumstances; rather than deliberately implying a sense of inherent domesticity. In fact Chen was also exceedingly fond of painting plein-air, and took every opportunity to do so.
There are differing accounts of Chen's birth - the official version is that she was born in 1907 in Paris, but other accounts state she was actually born in 1906 in Zhejiang. Her father was Tsang Kin Chiang, an affluent, educated businessman and advocate for Chinese nationalism. Highly privileged, her early childhood was spent between France, China and the United States. Aged twenty, Georgette Chen returned to Paris to study art and enjoyed an early measure of success when she was invited to exhibit in 1930 at the Salon d'Automne, the foremost modernist salon in Paris - no mean feat for a young female painter of Asian origin. In the same year she met and married Eugene Chen, a Trinidad-born diplomat twenty-two years her senior who had served as Sun Yat-Sen's first foreign minister and been involved in negotiations attempting to regain China's independent control against foreign powers. Eugene Chen became an influential force in Chen's life, his independent and cosmopolitan spirit complementing her own. With his encouragement, Chen spent their married life travelling and growing artistically rather than becoming trapped in the conventional role of wife and mother. After two decades of living alternately in Europe, Shanghai and Hong Kong, including a period of political exile and internment by the Japanese between 1942 - 1944, Chen eventually moved to Southeast Asia. She first resided in Penang, Malaysia before settling in Singapore in 1954 until the end of her life. Following a nomadic existence, this period of long-term stability meant that her artistic legacy could finally be fully recognized and augmented. Chen taught part-time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) which was then led by principal Lim Hak Tai, and participated in the active artistic milieu of mid 20th century Singapore. Among her students was sculptor Ng Eng Teng who remained a loyal friend to Chen, even as her health declined in later years. Although she is often identified by Singapore scholarship as a "Nanyang" school artist - the pioneering group of Singapore artists who were born in China, migrated to Southeast Asia, and merged elements of East and West in their work - it is essential to remember that the years she spent in Malaysia and Singapore were a relatively late interlude in her life; and Chen's formative training and influences were primarily French. Only her subject matters were fluid according to her local environment, but her painting techniques abided by the French salon style throughout her career.
Still Life with Tropical Fruits (Lot 23), painted in 1967, is an exceptionally refined example of Georgette Chen's peerless still lifes. It reveals Chen's influences from artists such as Cezanne and Corot, and in fact during her youth, she had also been referred to as a female 'Van Gogh'. The striking expressionism displayed in earlier works has coalesced into an elegant whole; her brushwork displays greater order and confidence than before, and compositional elements relate harmoniously and uniformly to each other. Still Life with Tropical Fruits depicts local fruit native to Southeast Asia: freshly picked rambutans still bearing leaves, starfruit, rose apples, ripe and unripened red bananas. Background shades of subtle earth tones are intermixed with an undertone of dull cobalt, a unique combination which viewers have come to associate with Georgette Chen. This shade of dove blue is recurrent in most of her works to some degree, and forms an effective juxtaposition to the warm red and sage green hues of the foreground fruit. The basket weave is almost mathematically precise however the crumpled white napkin cloth reveals a certain flatness of plane, a shallow pictorial depth which elucidates Chen's modernist sensibilities. The entire composition is cropped tight around the central objects, heightening the intimacy and immediacy of the scene. Chen's European tutelage is clearly in evidence as she portrays the rambutan fruit half-peeled, on the verge of being eaten. This shows direct artistic lineage from Flemish still lifes which portray table tableaux in the process of being half-dined, so as to convey a sense of recent human presence and a certain spontaneity within what is, in truth, a carefully composed setting. Furthermore being compelled to portray the varying textures of the furling fruit peel and interior flesh tests the skill of the artist to an even greater extent.
Georgette Chen's creations leave a sense of meditative stillness and quietude. Within Still Life with Tropical Fruits, each detail is minutely captured, from the broken stems of the rambutan branches to the brown twine looped through the comb of bananas. Through Chen's recording of these small, candid details, the scene is imbued with authenticity as a truly Southeast Asian picture. Although well known for being a fastidious person and artist, Chen never succumbed to overzealousness, intuitively registering precisely the right balance of naturalism and aesthetic perspective.