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 Bon Yee  (1905 - 1995)

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Lived/Active: China      Known for: Landscape, still life, portrait, figure, genre painting

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Ad Code: 2
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Christie's Hong Kong:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

In the 1930s, art scenes in China were rapidly developing as in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.  Coastal cities in the south such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong, meanwhile, formed a strong force in cultivating Chinese oil paintings.  Artists such as Yee Bon, Guan Liang, Li Tiefu, Feng Gangbai, Huang Xinbo, Lee Byng, Ng Po Wan, Luis Chan and Bao Shaoyou once all resided in Hong Kong, and contributed to a small, but remarkably vibrant, artistic community. 

Yee Bon was one of the most prominent painters in Hong Kong during the 1950s, his works were enormously influential in the early art development of Hong Kong. In 1918, Yee Bon left for Canada and began receiving formal art education at Winnipeg School of Art in 1928.  In 1932, Yee Bon transferred to Ontario College of Art to study under Canadian artists J.E.H MacDonald, J.W Beaty and Frank Johnson.  In 1932, Yee's works were widely recognized overseas and he became the first Chinese artist to exhibit in the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

He returned to his homeland, Guangzhou, and later moved to Hong Kong in 1935, and started a studio in which he worked and taught to promote the development of Western paintings locally.  Hong Kong, a small fishing village in the 1930s to 40s, was a backwater of art and culture.  Yee Bon had taken up the challenge, and with an impressive creativity, insisted on organizing painting exhibitions almost every year with very limited resources.  When Xu Beihong visited his exhibition and studio in 1937, he exclaimed in amazement, "I think oil painting is novel to China, especially in the South.  I had no idea that there are two great oil painters in Hong Kong: Li Tiefu and Yee Bon."  Yee Bon devoted himself to oil paintings throughout the 60 years of his artistic career. 

His paintings can be divided in two phases, marked by his return to Guangzhou from Hong Kong in 1956; the first phase, the "Hong Kong period" (1935-1956) and thereafter the "China period".  According to documentary records, Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong (Lot 1021) is the largest painting ever created by the artist. From the artist's biography, compiled by his family, the painting was created for Gaddi's, a French restaurant in the renowned Peninsula Hotel after he went back to Hong Kong from Macau at the end of Sino-Japanese War.  The painting was completed in 1953, when Gaddi's opened its door to the public, and it had been hanging on its wall for over 30 years (Fig. 1).  Together with the Peninsula they witnessed the rapid development of Hong Kong. At the end of the 1980s, the hotel underwent renovation and expansion, and for more than 20 years, the painting has been passed on to a private collector who continuously supports Yee Bon's artistic career.  With 20 years of residence in Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong expresses Yee's sentiments to the city.  By using realism as a means of artistic expression, Yee intensively exhibits a scene of busy marine traffic and working fishermen in Victoria Harbour during the 1950s. He stated that "A painter should paint what he is familiar with in order to reflect the passion to the things he loves. He should not construct entirely from imagination or forcefully portray subjects that belong to a world out of his.  These can only be ornaments rather than sentimental works of art" .

Yee grew up in the countryside and experienced the pain of leaving home and working as a Chinese laborer overseas, which stemmed his deep affections for the laborers.  After returning to China, he devoted himself to the study of scenes of laborer at work with an appreciation that began with empathy and gradually transformed into admiration.  When drawing with Xu Beijing in Guilin, Yee's awareness to the human spirit directed his focus to the laborers who worked along the riverside instead of the beautiful landscape.  He said, "laborers are the healthiest and the prettiest."  Under Yee's paintbrush, fishermen, farmers and coolies are filled with perseverance and as an unconquerable character.

His painting titled Victoria Harbour depicts the scenes of the harbor looking out from the Kowloon Peninsula.  Under the bright blue sky, the Peak acts as a vast backdrop, together with the skyscrapers and the British colonial architecture in Central on the other side of the harbor reflect the characteristic Chinese junks. Every detail of the fishermen's work and life has been exquisitely illustrated by Yee's thorough observation, some collect the net on the wooden junks, some are pulling the net and some are pulling the sail, expressing cooperation and unity in life.  Yee further portrays the working female figure with a baby on her back, recording the daily life episodes of early Hong Kong fishermen.  On the left hand side of the painting, there is a female fisherman sculling the sampan in representative costume, working barefoot, allowing her to move conveniently on the boats.  Adorning round-shaped bamboo hats on their head protects them from the strong sunlight as the barefooted women vigorously work, shows plentiful energy and brilliant characteristic of human nature.  Chinese characters meaning safe journey are inscribed on the boat, implying the dangers of sailing and fishing brought by the merciless stormy waves, and the adventurous spirit of these brave fishermen.  In fact, the spirit of absolute fearlessness of the fishermen in Yee's painting is exactly the spirit of the people in Hong Kong, which enable a small fishing village to be developed into an internationally well-known financial market, realizing the dreams of millions of people.  For the very reason, a sailing junk has become a symbol of Hong Kong, recording its glorious history.  The sheer size of the painting challenges its composition and spatial arrangement, and Yee presents his subjects and creates imagery successfully without a feeling of emptiness.  The subject matter, use of color and application of light and shadow fully reveal the masterly painting skills and his unique way of expression, manifesting his aesthetics and personality.  Yee uses realism as a means of artistic expression to demonstrate the unique appeal made by the laborers.  It reminds us the worker holding axe in Jean Francois Millet's painting which represents the contribution of laborers, and describes the feeling and ideology of the general public at that period of time, and expresses a modern way of thinking.

The painterly style that Yee learned in Canada in the 1920s was significantly affected by his teachers, who were greatly influenced by the Impressionist in Northern Europe.  They applied multilayer of oil paints, and a strong contrast of colors to depict the landscape of Canada.  Yee's painting embodies the essence of Impressionism, and with a tightly knit composition and bold brushworks, he expresses fully his confidence and positive outlook.

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