Georgette Chen was an artist who contributed to the birth of the Nanyang art style in Singapore. She was born Chang Li Ying (张荔英) in Zeijang Province, China in 1906.
Georgette’s father was an antique art dealer businessman who had business interests in Paris and New York and hence she spent her early year’s education in these cities. She felt that Parisian life suited her better and in 1927 she returned to study in Paris. Though her parents provided financial support for her art education, they never fully accepted her decision to become full-time artist. Georgette’s artworks were selected for the Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris.
Georgette met Eugene Chen, a Chinese diplomat and a friend of Sun Yat Sen. He was an arts and music lover who deeply appreciated her aspiration to become a professional artist. In 1930, Georgette married Eugene Chen and travelled in China with her husband. Georgette was Eugene’s second wife after the death of his first wife, Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume.
When the Sino-Japanese War broke out, the couple was imprisoned, Eugene Chen died in Shanghai in 1944 towards the end of World War II. Georgette arrived in Singapore in 1954 and began teaching art at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art. Not given to emotional displays of the artistic temperament, her approach was disciplined and methodical. Liu Kang (Singapore artist) wrote of her: ‘…During her long years of teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, she transmitted to her students not only fundamental knowledge and techniques, but also the ethics of artistic creation, and her hope that they would not be confined by what they learnt from the past, but would be able to break new ground and create their own expressions…’
Georgette’s subjects were culled from her travels through China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Her eye for composition and colour all emphasize her belief that all elements in her painting should be executed with deliberation to the whole and with only the right amount of expression needed. In 1952, Georgette with 3 other artists – Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee went to Bali on a painting trip.
Georgette was awarded the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 1982. She died of complications from rheumatoid arthritis on March 15, 1993, at Mount Alvernia Hospital after an 11-year struggle with the ailment.
In April 1994, Georgette’s house on Siglap Plain in Singapore was auctioned for S$2.8 million. The money raised from the auction gave to the Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship for art students managed by the National Arts Council. A collection of her paintings (104 paintings) were donated to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Apart from donations sale proceeds of her house, sales from Georgette’s personal investments of stocks and shares were also used to fund a new building for the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations (SCWO), as well as for community welfare projects for the local Malay community, and to the Practice Theatre Ensemble (founded by Kuo Pao Kun) to support Chinese theatrical art in Singapore.
Still Life with Cut Apple and Orange
Kwok Kian Chow said Georgette Chen’s earlier works were rendered with heavy brush strokes and texture. An excellent example is Still Life with Cut Apple and Orange which reveals traces of the influences of Paul Cezanne. Chen combined the use of dynamic brush strokes with dark, heavy tones filled with vigour and energy to suggest volume and texture. The apples and oranges are made more tangible through a focused and compact composition, giving immediacy and conviction to the still-life, a quality which is consistently found in Chen’s paintings, The vitality of the colours of the fruits and their different textures contrast with the vague and gray background colours to achieve a calculated and sensitive balance of elements in the painting.