Georgette Chen

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Georgette Chen
Georgette Chen, Self Portrait.jpg
Georgette Chen, Self Portrait, c. 1946, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Gallery Singapore
BornOctober 1906
Died15 March 1993 (aged 86)
EducationAcadémie Colarossi;
Academie Biloul;
Art Students League of New York
Known forOil painting
MovementNanyang Style
(m. 1930; died 1944)
Awards1982: Cultural Medallion (Visual arts)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese張荔英
Simplified Chinese张荔英

Georgette Chen Li Ying, born Chang Li Ying (simplified Chinese: 张荔英; traditional Chinese: 張荔英; pinyin: Zhāng Lìyīng; October 1906–15 March 1993) was a Singaporean painter known for her Post-Impressionistic styled oil paintings at the turn of the 20th-century. She was a pioneer of the visual arts in Singapore, who contributed to the birth of the Nanyang art style in Singapore. Chen also joined the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1954 as a teacher and lecturer until her hospitalisation. She was also the first woman to teach at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and also the only one schooled in Paris, France.


Chen was born the fourth of 12 children—10 girls and 2 boys—in Zhejiang Province, China, in 1906. Her father Zhang Renjie (Chang Sen Chek), was an antique dealer with businesses in Paris, London, and New York City. He was also a supporter of Sun Yat-sen, and provided financial support to Sun's revolutionary cause. Though living in the West, the Chang couple was deeply rooted to their Chinese heritage. Chen's mother only allowed her children to speak in Mandarin at home, while her father often brought the family along on his regular trips to China to support Sun's revolution, and to ensure that his children would never forget their own cultural identity.[1]

Born into a privileged life, Chen was exposed to art at a young age. For most of her life in Paris she would either be painting at home, visiting museums, or roaming around the city every day. Chen attended high school in America, and studied art at the Art Students League of New York for a year in 1926. She felt that Parisian life suited her better, and in 1927 she returned home to study at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris. Though her parents provided financial support for her art education, they never fully accepted her decision to become a full-time artist, believing that artists would struggle to succeed financially in their careers.[1]

Portrait of Chang Li Ying (Georgette Chen) from The Young Companion, 1931

Chen met Eugene Chen, a Chinese diplomat and a friend of Sun Yat-sen. He was an arts and music lover who deeply appreciated Chen's aspiration to become a professional artist.[2] In 1930 she married Eugene Chen, travelling to China as his wife. She would be Eugene Chen's second wife after the death of his first wife, Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume. The same year, Chen submitted her artwork for selection to the Salon d'Automne exhibition in Paris for the first time, and her work was accepted.[3] 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.[3]

In 1949, the artist held a solo exhibition at the Asia Institute in New York, presenting paintings of Chia's landscapes and people that she created after the war. That same year, she participated in the Salon d'Automne in Paris for the last time.[4] Chen 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.

Mr Lee Seng Gee, Chairman of the Lee Foundation was appointed as the executor of the Georgette Chen Estate. In April 1994, Chen's house on Siglap Plain was auctioned for S$2.8 million. The money raised from the auction was given to the Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship for art students managed by the National Arts Council. A collection of Chen's paintings were stowed away in two rooms of her home, and subsequently discovered by Lee.[5] In June 1994, Lee donated the 53 newly discovered paintings to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). This brought a total of 104 paintings by Chen to be found in the museum collection.[6] Apart from donations from the sale proceeds of her house, sales from Chen's personal investments of stocks and shares were also used to fund a new building for the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (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.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2007, playwright Ng Yi-Sheng's musical Georgette was staged by Musical Theatre Ltd.

In 2014, National Gallery Singapore published Eisner-nominated comic artist Sonny Liew's graphic novel, Warm Nights Deathless Days: The Life of Georgette Chen.[8]

Channel NewsAsia produced a three-part docudrama starring actress Rui En as Georgette Chen. The English-language series that was also adapted into Chinese, aired on Channel NewsAsia, MediaCorp Channel 5 and MediaCorp Channel 8 in April 2015.[9]

Solo Exhibitions[edit]

  • Pioneer Artists of Singapore - Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985 - held at National Museum Art Gallery from 10 - 24 November 1985[10]
  • Georgette Chen: At Home in the World - held at National Gallery Singapore from 27 Nov 2020 to 26 Sept 2021[11]

Exhibition Catalogues & Publications[edit]

National Museum Art Gallery (1985), Pioneer Artists of Singapore: Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, Singapore

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sheares, Constance (1989-02-17). Khong, Roger (ed.). Georgette Chen (transcript). (Reel 1). Singapore: National Archives. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
  2. ^ Sheares, Constance (1989-02-17). Khong, Roger (ed.). Georgette Chen (transcript). (Reel 2). Singapore: National Archives. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
  3. ^ a b Juniper, Foo (1996-03-20). "Bouquets for two pioneer artists". Singapore: Straits Times Life!. p. 18.
  4. ^ "Georgette Chen: An Inimitable Pioneer of the Nanyang Style". 2020-11-25. Retrieved 2020-11-25.
  5. ^ "S$2.8M from sale of artist's house may be used for scholarships for art students". Singapore: Straits Times. 1994-06-14. p. 21.
  6. ^ Kan, Geraldine (1994-06-14). "Georgette Chen works donated to art museum". Singapore: Straits Times. p. 21.
  7. ^ "Other beneficiaries". Singapore: Straits Times. 1994-06-19. p. 21.
  8. ^ Martin, Mayo (20 June 2014). "Georgette Chen to get a graphic novel". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
  9. ^ Martin, Mayo (20 June 2014). "Rui En meets Georgette Chen". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
  10. ^ "Pioneer artist of Singapore : Georgette Chen retrospective 1985 presented by the Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum on 9 November 1985, Singapore, National Museum Gallery 10 to 24 Nov 1985 / produced by Ministry of Community Development". Retrieved 2020-12-11.
  11. ^ "Georgette Chen: At Home in the World".

External links[edit]