Trailblazer of the visual arts in Singapore
Known for her exceptional oil paintings, Georgette Chen is considered a trailblazer of the Singapore art movement, one of a group of artists who established the regional “Nanyang Style” of painting.
Born into a wealthy family in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, Georgette grew up in Paris, where her father was an antique dealer. He was also a financial supporter of the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, and Georgette’s parents ensured their 12 children travelled regularly to China so as not to forget their roots.
From a young age, Georgette was exposed to art and her love for painting flourished. She attended high school in America, where her father sold antiques, and in 1926 she studied at the Arts Students League of New York.
In 1927, Georgette returned to Paris where she furthered her studies at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul. Within three years Georgette had her artwork selected for exhibition at the annual Salon d'Automne, the showpiece of innovative 20th century painting, famous for displaying the work of artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne.
The honour also coinicided with Georgette meeting Sun Yat Sen’s Foreign Minister, Eugene Chen Youren. Wooed by his love of art, Georgette married Eugene Chen, and travelled with him to China. When war with Japan broke out in 1937, their lives were thrown into turmoil. Eugene was imprisoned by the Japanese, and he died a prisoner of war in 1944.
Throughout these years, Georgette had continued to paint, both still life and portraits, and her reputation as an artist grew. In 1937 her work was shown at two major Parisian exhibitions, the Paris World Fair and the Women Painters Exhibition.
After the war, Georgette remarried and returned again to Paris, where she exhibited at the Salon d'Automne and the Galerie La Licorne. In 1951 she moved with her second husband to Penang, but by 1953 the pair had divorced and Georgette came to Singapore.
She soon exhibited at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Singapore Art Society. In 1954 she also became a part-time teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where she worked until 1980.
From 1951 onwards, Georgette’s paintings changed to combine her Western training with Asian themes, placing her as a “Nanyang Style” artist. In 1982 she was awarded the Singapore Cultural Medallion.
Georgette died in 1993 after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. She left no heirs, and the executor of her estate auctioned her house and sold off her investments in stocks and shares. The proceeds were distributed to several worthy causes, including the Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship for arts students, community welfare projects for the Malay community, and a new building for the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.
“An artist, I tell you, has to be prepared to starve.
But somehow the artist loves his work so much that he struggles on and succeeds.”
In an interview conducted by Constance Sheares, 1989.