In 1984, the New York Times and ARTNews used the expression “Romantic Realism” to describe the style of Chinese artist Chen Yifei, a graduate of Shanghai Fine Art School who had completed his artistic education in the United States. Chen's style combines the realism associated with European art styles with Chinese subject matter and themes close to the artist's history. Chen was an artist who refined and embraced his roots as he successfully introduced contemporary Chinese oil paintings to the western audience.
In 1980, Chen left his prestigious position as head of the Oil Painting Department of the Shanghai Painting Academy to become one of the first artists from China permitted to work and study art in the United States. He was already a mature artist with his own style who had made his mark in China, but Chen wanted to show his paintings in New York and to see the great art of the West. Chen, who often said he arrived with just $38 in his pocket, found work as an art restorer and was soon studying at Hunter College for a Masters in Fine Arts.
Chen’s exceptional talent was discovered by Dr. Armand Hammer in 1981, just one year after his arrival in the United States. In the autumn of 1982, Chen returned to China to seek inspiration for artistic creation in the town of Suzhou, an area famous for its scenic beauty. With its unique ambiance, the waterways, canals, streets, and the 1000-year-old bridges, Suzhou has earned a reputation as the “Venice of the East”. The city also served as a wellspring of inspiration for many poets and painters throughout the history of China. To Chen, villages by the water were filled with the memories of his youth. The time spent in foreign countries had deepened his love for China, which became more acute and intense than ever. Chen then translated his own memories, emotions, and patriotic sentiments into artistic creativity.
In 1983, his solo exhibition of Suzhou landscapes at Hammer Galleries created a sensation by selling out in its first week. A year later, Chen would have another sell-out exhibition at Hammer. In her review of that exhibition in Artnews in November 1984, Lucy Lim eloquently described the power of Chen’s landscapes:
The most striking feature of Chen’s paintings is a pervasive mood of silence and stillness. His images seem frozen in time and space. The scenes of China’s rural towns and their people, who are portrayed with such psychological acuteness that we feel a spiritual bond with them, have a spellbinding effect. His landscapes focus on Suzhou— the so-called “Venice of the East”—and other river towns of China that he lived in or visited, but they all come across as refreshing discoveries.
An interplay of line, color and geometric pattern underlies Chen’s landscape design. Deliberate and carefully arranged, his compositions reflect an abstract approach to form and color that is intrinsic to Chinese art. Though usually subdued in tone, the paintings emit a radiant beauty, heightened at times by the shimmering light reflected in canals or by the glow of the setting sun on the terraces where small, shadowy figures sit.
In 1985, Chen was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. That same year, Dr. Armand Hammer presented Chen’s painting, titled Memory of Homeland–Double Bridge, as a gift to Deng Xiaoping.
Chen was the first artist of his generation to come to the West, and he became an important symbol of the possibility of artistic exchange between the United States and China. Chen’s favorite symbol, the bridge, traditionally represents the union of man and nature, as well as the meeting of East and West.