Chen Danqing was born in 1953, in Shanghai. He is a well-known Chinese oil painter, who made his name in the 1980s, with his seven paintings of Tibetans. These paintings were made with the idea to remind of French Realist artist, Jean-Francois Millet. Along with his other early paintings of Tibet, these are seen as milestones in China’s art history.
Since grade school Chen wanted to be a painter. In fact, in Chinese, is an artistic term, Danqing even means, vermilion and cyan. It generally refers to painting, for the two colors commonly used in Chinese art. So it could be said that even his name destined him to be a painter. In his early age, when he was 14 that is, he was provided a chance to do oil paintings, because at that time Chairman Mao’s face was in high demand, and one of his first encounters with painting was painting his face. Like many young people, he was also sent to serve on the countryside of Jiangxi Province for five years. This was when he was at the age of sixteen. Despite his work in the countryside, his free time he used to paint. Chen has seen and experienced first-hand the Cultural Revolution. He took his opportunity when art freed itself from Mao’s propaganda. Despite the influence Russian Realism painters had on Chinese painters, Chen was more turned to European artists. When Chen was only a middle-school graduate, in 1978, he was admitted to the master’s program at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, that was the only art academy directly under the Ministry of Education.
In 1974, Chen showed two of his works, On the Frontier, and Spring Snow. In 1976, he traveled to Tibet, the place which was his greatest inspiration, and there he won two prizes, for his oil paintings. One of his most famous paintings is the Tibet-Sheepherder, in which he captured everyday life of Tibetans. He painted this one when he was in his late 20s. The painting represents a moment where a sheepherder kisses a woman. Because of the Cultural Revolution, that enclosed the country, shielding it even from an everyday reality, this painting was quite shocking for public. This painting is a type of landscape painting with two people as the subject matter. Colors on the painting are earthy, and there is not much brightness on the two people that are wearing traditional Tibetan outfits. Their skin is dark from the out-door lifestyle. The desert landscape in the back suggests a very rustic lifestyle. In 1982, Chen moved to the U.S. He settled in New York where he lived for almost 20 years. In the first time, for the five or six years, life for Chen was difficult, during which he became depressed. In New York he stopped painting Tibet, because he couldn’t find inspiration of this kind, in the city lifestyle. He later signed up with a local art gallery in New York, where he met many contemporary Chinese artists. Chen eventually decided to return to China to teach what he had learned in the west. Offer he received from Tsinghua University, which was one of the China’s top education institutions, he accepted in 2000. There he became a Doctoral advisor at the school’s Academy of Arts and Design. He handpicked five students from a large number of candidates, to be admitted for his studies. He taught them painting, but because of the final exam in English, that they all failed, they weren’t able to graduate. Because of this, Chen started with his ruthless attacks on art education in China. He stated that this method of selecting students is meaningless. This was also the reason Chen quitted the University, in 2005, because in the following years he hasn’t been able to find any students that satisfy both of this criteria, knowledge of English, and his artistic ideas.
Chen has always been known as a gifted painter, and public figure. Just as Weng Yunpeng, one of Chen’s first five students, said, “Danqing has never been just a painter. He is an intellectual with a social conscience.” Chen dedicated most of his time writing books on politics, literature, painting and art education, after leaving Tsinghua University.