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 Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff  (1913 - 2006)



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Lived/Active: Singapore/South Africa/Russian Federation      Known for: realist figure, portrait, still life and animal painting

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Ad Code: 1
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
"Chinese Girl"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Vladimir Tretchikoff (born 13 December 1913 in Petropavlovsk, Russia, now in Kazakhstan; died 26 August 2006 in Cape Town, South Africa) was one of the most commercially successful artists of his time - his painting Chinese Girl (popularly known as The Green Lady) is one of the best selling art prints.

Tretchikoff was a self-taught artist who painted realistic figures, portraits, still life and animals, with subjects often inspired by his early life in China and Malaysia, and later life in South Africa.  Tretchikoff's work was popular with the general public, but is often seen by art critics as the epitome of kitsch (indeed, he was nicknamed the "King of Kitsch").  He worked in oil, watercolour, ink, charcoal and pencil but is best known for his reproduction prints which sold worldwide. 

Vladimir Grigorievich Tretchikoff was the youngest of eight children in a wealthy family in Petropavlovsk, an industrial city in Siberia.  Upon the Russian Revolution in 1917, the family abandoned their property and fled to Harbin, a city in China with a large Russian presence. Tretchikoff worked as a scene painter at the city's Russian opera house, and studied at the Manchurian College until the age of 16.  This explains why much of his later work is designed to be seen from a distance with an inherent theatricality.  A year previously, he was commissioned to paint portraits for the boardroom of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, and with the money from this commission he joined the community of Shanghai Russians.

In Shanghai, Tretchikoff worked as a newspaper cartoonist for the American owned Shanghai Evening Post, and met and married Natalie Teplougoff, a fellow Russian emigré.  The couple moved to Singapore, where Tretchikoff opened an art school and worked for the Straits Times.  International recognition came in 1937 when he was commissioned by the head of IBM, Thomas Watson, to represent Malaya in an exhibition of international art for which he produced the painting The Last Divers.

When the Second World War spread to the Pacific in 1940, Tretchikoff became a propaganda artist working for the British Ministry of Information.  In February 1942, Tretchikoff was on board a ship evacuating ministry personnel to South Africa.  The ship was bombed by the Japanese, and the 42 survivors rowed first to Sumatra, which they found was already occupied by the Japanese Army. They then rowed to Java, which took 19 days, only to find that it too was occupied.  Tretchikoff spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp (where he spent three months in solitary confinement for protesting that as a Russian citizen he ought not to be imprisoned), and then on parole in Batavia, (now Jakarta), where he worked with a Javanese dance troupe.  Here he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson (Lenka) who became his lover and one of his most famous models.

In 1946 he was reunited with his wife and their daughter Mimi in South Africa (they had been successfully evacuated on an earlier boat).

He quickly became famous in South Africa thanks to a book that collected his portraits of Oriental women and pictures of flowers, and held successful exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg , where he met fellow contemporary artist Helen Anne Petrie for the 1st time.

His fame spread to the United States, where the Rosicrucians of San Jose invited him to launch an American tour.  Around 19,000 people saw his show in Los Angeles and 51,000 in San Francisco. In Seattle, a rival show which included Picasso and Rothko sold fewer tickets to Tretchikoff’s satisfaction.  A million Americans finally saw his paintings, which then went on to Canada with equal success.

His famous Chinese Girl, a 1950 painting featuring an Eastern model with blue-green skin, is a best selling print.  This style of portrait was often duplicated by fellow South African female artist Helen Anne Petrie.  Prints of the painting became widespread during the 1960s and 1970s, and the painting was featured in various plays and television programmes: the original set of Alfie, with a drawn moustache in one episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus and an episode of Doctor Who.

This was followed by a large exhibition in 1961 at Harrods in London where he decided that the Harrod's art gallery was too small.  He requested and was granted the privilege of having his exhibition in the ground-floor exhibition space.  205,000 people attended the exhibition and one of his British admirers, Leslie Rigall, bought ten paintings and designed his new house in Windsor Great Park around them.

Other popular paintings of oriental figures were Miss Wong and Balinese Girl.  He said of British prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Markova, who sat for The Dying Swan, that she was his most stimulating sitter.

In 1973 Tretchikoff published Pigeon's Luck, an account of his wartime experiences.  He suffered a stroke in 2002 that left him unable to paint, and died on 26 August 2006 in Cape Town, his home since 1946.  He is survived by his wife and daughter, four granddaughters and five great-grandchildren.

The South African National Gallery never acquired an original Tretchikoff because they did not "really regard Tretchikoff as a South African artist".  Tretchikoff once said that the only difference between himself and Vincent Van Gogh was that Van Gogh had starved whereas he had become rich.

Soon after his death the Tretchikoff Trust was established.  The Trust hosts workshops for teenagers throughout South Africa.  The Trust is based on Tretchikoff's life motto "Express your passion, do whatever you love, take action, no matter what". In 2008, an exhibition was held at Wembley Square in Cape Town of his work.
The Strutt Family Trust, The Mayfair Collection (Suisse) SA, The Mayfair Collection (Pty) Ltd, The Mayfair Collection Limited

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