Georgette Chen Li Ying, born Chang Li Ying (b. October 1906, Zhejiang, China1–d. 15 March 1993, Singapore)2, was one of Singapore’s pioneer artists who established the Nanyang style of painting.3 Known for her still lifes and portraits in oils,4 Chen was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1982 for her outstanding achievements and contributions to art in Singapore.5
In her research into Georgette Chen’s life in 1997, Jane Chia, then a senior lecturer in the Arts Division at the National Institute of Education, uncovered Chen’s marriage certificate of 1930 that stated she was born in Zhejiang, China, in October 1906. At the time of her research, the common belief had been that the artist was born in Paris, France, in 1907, but Chia found no birth record to either confirm or refute this. Chen had on different occasions, stated her place of birth as France or China, and her year of birth as 1906 or 1907. Since the marriage certificate was an official document witnessed by the Chinese Consul General, it was highly likely that Chen was born in Zhejiang in 1906.6
The daughter of a businessman who dealt in Asian art and antiques, Chen lived a privileged life in her early years, travelling throughout China, Paris and New York. She attended art classes at the Art Students League of New York between 1926 and 1927, and later studied art at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris.7
In 1930, Chen married her first husband, Eugene Chen Youren, the Chinese Foreign Minister. This was also the year that the first of her art works was accepted for exhibition at the Salon d'Automne in Paris.8While her early works, such as "Coast of Brittany" (circa 1930) and "Landscape" (circa 1930–33) were rendered in a style similar to the Realist and Barbizon schools of art, many of her subsequent works created in the latter part of her life were influenced by late 19th century and early 20th century Post-Impressionists and Fauvists such as Maurice Utrillo, Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.9
In 1937, Chen’s work was exhibited at two major exhibitions in Paris: the Palace of Painting as part of the Paris World Fair, and the Women Painters Exhibition. Residing mostly in Shanghai during the 1940s, Chen held exhibitions there during this time, including two solo exhibitions, one at the Metropole Hotel in 1943 and another at the Alliance Francaise in in 1947.10 In the 1930s and ’40s, she produced many still life paintings and portraits of her husband, Eugene Chen. His portraits were executed in a style reminiscent of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh.11During the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), the couple was kept under house arrest. Eugene Chen’s health deteriorated during this time and he passed away in 1944.12
In 1947, Chen married her second husband Ho Yung Chi, the former aide to Eugene Chen. In 1949, she and Ho returned to Paris where she exhibited at the Salon d'Automne and the Galerie La Licorne. In 1951, the couple moved to Penang, and in 1953, following her divorce from Ho, she relocated to Singapore. In Singapore, Chen exhibited her works at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (1953) and the Singapore Art Society (1954).13
Chen taught art part-time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1954 to 1980.14 Her paintings from 1949 onwards displayed her maturity as an artist. She produced monumental still lifes, figure compositions and local landscape paintings, which established her standing as an artist.15 Chen’s Western-style training and her use of local subject matter placed her as a Nanyang Style artist, a style characterised by its hybrid art form combining Asian themes and Western art techniques.16 Paintings such as “Mosque in Kuala Lumpur" (1957) and “Singapore Waterfront" (1958) showed her skilled draughtsmanship, compositional mastery and sensitivity to the atmospheres and rhythms of the scene using a variety of brushstroke techniques and colours.17
In 1982, Chen was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Art.18 She died at the Mount Alvernia Hospital on 15 March 1993, after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.19
Chen’s legacy is evidenced in the multiple creative works inspired by her personal and artistic life. In 2007, Musical Theatre Limited staged Georgette: The Musical in conjunction with the 2007 edition of the Singapore Arts Festival.20 Two years later, a children’s illustrated book, Georgette’s Mooncakes (2009), was published – it used Chen’s oil painting, “Still Life: Moon Festival Table” (c. 1965–68), as a point of entry for children to learn about the Mid-autumn Festival and other aspects of Singaporean heritage.21 As part of the National Gallery Singapore’s Dreaming Art Series of publications on Singapore art, graphic novelist Sonny Liew illustrated the Chen-inspired graphic novel, Warm Nights, Deathless Days: The Life of Georgette Chen (2014).22 The National Gallery also commissioned a three-part docudrama on her life and contributions to the Singapore art scene, which premiered on 29 April 2015.23
1. Jane Chia, Georgette Chen (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 1997), 15. (Call no. RSING q759.95957 CHI)
2. “Pioneer S’pore Artist Dies,” Straits Times, 17 March 1993, 21 (From NewspaperSG); Chia, Georgette Chen, 60, 64.
3. “Pioneer S’pore Artist Dies”; T. K. Sabapathy, “First Lady of Art,” Straits Times, 19 March 1993, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Venka Purushothaman, ed., Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey: Cultural Medallion Recipients 1979–2001 (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2002), 7 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 NAR); “Georgette Chen Liying,” Esplanade Offstage, accessed 5 August 2016.
4. Ministry of Community Development & National Museum, Georgette Chen Retrospective, 1985 (Singapore: National Museum, 1985), 3–4 (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHE.G); Chia Wai Hon, Singapore Artists (Singapore: Singapore Cultural Foundation and Federation Publications, 1982), 2 (Call no. RSING 759.95957 SIN); Sabapathy, “First Lady of Art.”
5. Purushothaman, Notes on a Cultural Journey, 167; “Honoured for Spending Half a Life-Time in the Arts,” Straits Times, 30 October 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Chia, Georgette Chen, 15; “Captivating Portrait of a Pioneer Georgette Chen,” Business Times, 12 April 1997, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Chia, Georgette Chen, 17–26.
8. Chia, Georgette Chen, 26, 63.
9. Ministry of Community Development & National Museum, Georgette Chen Retrospective, 1985, 5–10, 13–14, 16; Esplanade Offstage, “Georgette Chen Liying”; T. K. Sabapathy, “Everyday World of Experience and Senses,” Straits Times, 8 November 1985, 21 (From NewspaperSG); Georgette Chen Liying, oral history interview by Constance Sheares, 2 November 1988, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:52, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000956), 6–7.
10. Chia, Georgette Chen, 37–38, 63.
11. Chia, Georgette Chen, 34; Ministry of Community Development & National Museum, Georgette Chen Retrospective, 1985, 7; “Captivating Portrait of a Pioneer Georgette Chen.”
12. Chia, Georgette Chen, 36–37.
13. Chia, Georgette Chen, 17–26, 37–41, 46, 63–64.
14. Chia, Georgette Chen, 49, 59.
15. Ministry of Community Development & National Museum, Georgette Chen Retrospective, 1985, 8.
16. “Pioneer S’pore Artist Dies”; Sabapathy, “First Lady of Art”; Esplanade Offstage, “Georgette Chen Liying”; T. K. Sapapathy, “Modern Art in Singapore: Pioneers and Premises,” in Art Hats in Renaissance City, ed. Lee Renee Foong Ling (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2015), 105–12. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 ART)
17. Kwok Kian Chow, Channels & Confluences: A History of Singapore Art (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 1996), 64–67. (Call no. RSING 709.5957 KWO)
18. Purushothaman, Notes on a Cultural Journey, 167; “Honoured for Spending Half a Life-Time in the Arts.”
19. “Pioneer S’pore Artist Dies”; Chia, Georgette Chen, 60, 64.
20. Musical Theatre Limited (Singapore), Georgette, the Musical (Singapore: Musical Theatre Limited, 2007) (Call no. RSING 792.642095957 GEO); Charmian Kok, “Homegrown Musical with Great Potential,” Business Times, 11 June 2007, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Adeline Foo, Georgette’s Mooncakes (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009). (Call no. JRSING 428.6 FOO)
22. Sonny Liew, Warm Nights, Deathless Days: The Life of Georgette Chen (Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2014). (Call no. RSING 741.595957 LIE)
23. National Gallery Singapore, “The Worlds of Georgette Chen: A Three-Part Docudrama on One of Singapore’s Pioneer Artists,” media release, 19 June 2014; Rachel Loi, “Docudrama to Introduce Georgette Chen to More Singaporeans,” Business Times, 20 June 2014, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
Chen Wen Hsi [and] Georgette Chen, Ministry of Community Development, 1987, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHE)
Chionh Siew Yong, Constance Sheares and Malik Zainal, Georgette Chen, n.p., 1985, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 GEO)
Georgette Chen and Singapore Art Museum, Memoirs, Georgette Chen, Singapore Arts Museum, 2008, compact disc. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHE)
Janet Ho, “Old Age Fears Spurred Her to Paint More,” Straits Times, 5 April 1997, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
Ken Cheong, et al., Georgette Chen, Cultural Medallion Recipient 1982 Visual Arts, Singapore Art Museum for National Library Board, in collaboration with National Arts Council Singapore, 2008, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 759.95959 GEO)
Ministry of Community Development & National Museum (Singapore), Pioneer Artist of Singapore, n.p., 1985, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 PIO)
Musical Theatre Limited (Singapore), Georgette, the Musical (Singapore: Musical Theatre Limited, 2007) (Call no. RSING 792.642095957 GEO)
National Library Board, “Georgette Chen,” published 2016.
“The Art of Georgette Chen,” Her World 3, no. 8 (1962), 36–37. (Call no. RCLOS 052 HW)
The information in this article is valid as at 24 January 2018 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Chen, Georgette, 1907-1993--Biography
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Art)