It took a long haul and a keen eye to pick away at the layers to find out the truth about one of the world's most popular images.
‘Do you want me to tell you how I met Vladimir Tretchikoff?” asked Monika Sing-Lee. Of course I did—that was why I had come all the way from Russia to see her.
I am working on a book about the controversial South African artist. His works were reproduced in hundreds of thousands of cheap copies around the world, abhorred by art critics and adored by the public.
His most famous painting is Chinese Girl, the portrait of an Oriental woman whose face has an uncanny patina-like hue. Its reproductions are popularly known as the “Blue Lady” or the “Green Lady”, depending on the quality and degree of discolouration.
I travelled from wintry Moscow to summery Johannesburg to resolve a mystery about that iconic image. Who was Tretchikoff’s model? Was she the woman sitting next to me in this room?
“I’ll tell you how I met Tretchi,” said Sing-Lee. “He came up to me with that charming smile. ‘Hello! I’m Tretchikoff! I want to paint you. Would you sit for me?’ Those were his words.”
I was in Sing-Lee’s kitchen, chatting to her, watching a face that refused to reveal her age and eyes that looked very familiar. She even had her hair parted in the same way as the woman in the painting. I was impressed.
I learned about her by chance. A few months before I had come across a book by her daughter, Margo. She mentioned that her mother had been Tretchikoff’s model for the famous painting.
According to Margo, Tretchikoff saw Monika at the Chinese laundry where she worked at the time. Captivated by her appearance, he told her he wanted to paint her. As simple as that.
But did Sing-Lee have anything to prove her claim? She looked strikingly similar to the woman in the painting. Still, I was hoping for some other evidence.
The most beautiful woman in the world
She opened her photograph album and I was literally blown away. The girl in the black-and-white snapshots from the Fifties was just like the legendary image come to life. Only, she smiled most of the time and didn’t have that turquoise tint to her face. The visual similarity couldn’t be clearer.
“As a child, looking over photographs of my mother’s youth, I could never get over how exquisitely stunning she was,” said Margo, “like a movie star or a fashion model —with black, curly hair always kept down to her shoulders and long, narrow eyes. She always wore red lipstick on her full lips and black eyeliner ... I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world—beautiful within and without, a beauty that made her very special and unique.”
I could see that for myself.
Although her face looks very Oriental, Sing-Lee has some Dutch and Portuguese blood. She was raised mostly by her strict and conservative grandparents. At 11, she went to a Catholic school and since then she has been deeply attached to religion and spirituality.
She was attractive enough to catch the interest of a legion of boys. They tried hard to take her out for a date but her family didn’t want to hear about it. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way ... “Her face would always light up when she spoke of all the handsome men who were after her,” said Margo.
“When I met Tretchi, I used to work at my uncle’s laundromat in Sea Point,” said Sing-Lee. “I was taking parcels, writing out invoices and the like.
That was in 1951. I was in my late teens.
“We were introduced by a popular Russian dancer, Masha Arsenyeva. She used to teach young girls ballet and hired a studio close to the laundry. She was a regular customer.
“Tretchi and Masha were good friends. At the time, he also stayed in Sea Point. He rented a bachelor flat with his wife and daughter. He hadn’t got that posh house in Bishopscourt yet.
“One day Masha told me that Tretchikoff was always looking for models to paint. He visited her classes almost every day and sketched her pupils. Eventually, Masha said to him: ‘You never seem satisfied. Why don’t you go to Hen Lee laundry in Main Road? Look at that girl in the reception, come back and tell me what you think about her.’ That’s what he did.”
He painted Sing-Lee for more than a month, twice a week. Every Saturday he picked her up in his yellow convertible. On the way to his studio in the Gardens the pretty, raven-haired girl sitting next to the elegant 37-year-old man turned heads. The embarrassed Sing-Lee wished she could sink down in her seat to hide from view.
It was the time when Tretchikoff still ran an art school at his studio. While he worked, his students gathered around to watch him. When Sing-Lee sat for Tretchikoff, he put her on a little raised stage so that the pupils—15 or 20 men and women—could paint her as well.
“He treated me so nice. I nearly fell in love with him. Tretchikoff was very jovial, always cracked jokes and made everybody laugh. One night, when I was sitting, we all burst into hysterical laughter. I don’t remember what started it. Probably one of his jokes. His assistant Jean went red with laughter. We couldn’t stop. My goodness, it was funny.”
Tretchikoff did two paintings of Sing-Lee, each of them called Chinese Girl. In both portraits the woman is dressed in a Chinese tunic. In the famous painting it is golden and in the lesser-known one blue.
“The true colour of the beautiful top that I wore for the sessions was blue and pink,” said Sing-Lee.
“He made up the yellow. It was a delicate silk gown that he had brought from China.”
She also believed that the lower part of the figure, from below the neck, was done with a different model. “I never had such broad shoulders. The chest is also not mine. They look more like Jean Campbell’s [Tretchikoff’s assistant and later a painter in her own right]. I suppose he first painted my face and then may have coupled it with the upper part of her body.”
In any case, Sing-Lee didn’t see the final result then. Tretchikoff refused to show her the work while she was sitting. His pupils could watch the progress but not the model. She respected that and didn’t interfere. What was more, he didn’t even have titles for the two paintings at that stage.
A very nice man.
“If I tell you how much he paid me, you won’t believe me. I sat for six weeks. He squeezed in a second painting. For that, I got £6.50, or just over R20 at the time. ‘Here, Monika, there’s a nice cheque for you.’ But all in all, he was a very nice man. I have no grudge against him.”
She finally got a chance to take a look at the paintings a few months later when she visited Tretchikoff’s show at Stuttafords in Adderley Street. He preferred to exhibit at department stores rather than at more conventional venues. His public hardly ever went to art galleries.
“When I approached him, he said to me happily, ‘Ah, Monika, I’m displaying two of your paintings!’ I said: ‘Oh. So what did you title them?’ And he replied: ‘Chinese Girl.’
“What a disappointment. I thought it would be something more imaginative. Anyway, I felt honoured that he had two of my portraits on display. Usually, he’d have one work per model.”
Soon after the exhibition, Sing-Lee married and moved to Johannesburg with her husband. She and Tretchikoff lost touch and she never posed for another artist. A mother of five, she had no time for “such folly” any more.
“Do you believe that I’m the Chinese Girl?” she finally asked me.
I still had an important reservation. Even if I assumed that Sing-Lee sat for the two Chinese Girl paintings, was she really the model for his world-famous Chinese Girl?
Let me explain. Tretchikoff, in his autobiography Pigeon’s Luck published in 1973, gave the following account of how the famous painting had been created. He had indeed painted a “laundryman’s daughter” in Cape Town and called both the portraits Chinese Girl.
Strange subdued expression
The description of the “experimental” work in the book sounds very familiar: “The face highlighted with a shade of green and, apart from the collar of her tunic, the rest is suggested by lines of charcoal on brown canvas.” Before he left for a tour of the United States and Canada in 1953, an unknown intruder destroyed the portrait in Tretchikoff’s studio in Cape Town.
When he arrived in the US, he decided to tackle the subject again. Then one day at a restaurant in the San Francisco Chinatown he saw a Chinese girl who strongly resembled his Cape Town model. What caught his eye was not just her exquisite Eastern look but also the “strange, subdued expression on her face”, which Tretchikoff apparently managed to convey on canvas in his new painting.
“I had seen other Chinese in the Western world,” he wrote, “but somehow their Oriental mystery was lost. They thought and behaved as Europeans. That had been true of my laundryman’s daughter in Cape Town. This girl, though, was something quite different — refined and demure and with all the charm and infinite promise of the East.”
This new work seemed to enjoy a much more enthusiastic reception with his audience. “Somehow it spoke to people much louder, somehow it gripped them. I began noticing the new reaction immediately.”
The canvas travelled with him all over the US and Canada and was acquired by a Swiss girl from Chicago. That, according to Tretchikoff, was the Chinese Girl we know in reproduction.
What does Sing-Lee think about Tretchikoff’s version of the story?
She is adamant. “I know exactly how the famous picture looks and every part of it is me. Even minor details. From the time I was small, I had a streak of grey hair on the right side, next to my parting. Now look at the picture and you’ll see that he captured that very well. The streak is there.”
But I believe that Tretchikoff told the truth. I think he indeed painted a new version of Chinese Girl in the US to replace the canvas that had been slashed in Cape Town. All his oil paintings done in South Africa before his US tour (including the second portrait of Sing-Lee) were marked “SA”.
On the Chinese Girl and the other works he repainted in the US, those letters are missing.
But he must have worked on it with Sing-Lee’s image in mind. Maybe that is why he dated the new work 1952 and not 1953, the year he went to the US. Most likely, the Chinese Girl that we know was basically a recreation of the one he had done in South Africa.
If that is the case, Sing-Lee is the original Chinese Girl. What is more, Tretchikoff confirmed it in several interviews. “Her name was Monica,” he told an Afrikaans journalist in 1992. “I painted her in Cape Town but I’ve never seen her after that.”
In fact, they might never have met again if it wasn’t for a surprising discovery that Sing-Lee made a few years later.
“To be honest, I never liked the green face that he gave me. When my sister-in-law brought me a print of Chinese Girl as a Christmas gift, I turned it down. She took it back and gave it to someone else.
“But in the late 1990s I saw a documentary about Tretchikoff on TV and couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew Chinese Girl was popular but I had no idea it was that famous.”
The film, directed by Yvonne du Toit, featured interviews with celebrities and ordinary people from many countries. They all were big fans of the Chinese Girl.
Finally Sing-Lee decided to get a reproduction of her own. When she was in Cape Town, she found Tretchikoff’s number and phoned him anonymously. He told her he only had one print left and he had no intention of parting with it.
When she visited him in his Bishops-court home and revealed her identity, he doubted her. “But he couldn’t stop looking at my eyes. I think he tried to recall. Maybe, when he was painting me, he paid the closest attention to the eyes. In the end he told me I didn’t look like Chinese Girl. I said, ‘Who would look the same after 50 years?’”
Eventually, Tretchikoff recognised her and they made friends. He was making her laugh again.
On that first day he took a large poster of Chinese Girl from the wall and gave it to Sing-Lee. “He was so meticulous. I wanted to pack the poster in a bag but he stopped me. ‘You can’t carry it like this.’
“He took the poster, rolled it up carefully, wrapped it up in brown paper and put it in a mailing tube. Then he brought a box for the tube. He warned me: ‘When you’re on the plane, watch out. Don’t bump the tube against the door. Otherwise, you’ll spoil my picture.’ He loved his works as if they were living beings.”
The last time Sing-Lee saw Tretchikoff, he could hardly speak, but his bohemian curls were hanging over his forehead as always. She
told him: “I’d like to take a photo of you and me.”
He roused himself at once and asked: “Have you got a comb?”
As I was getting ready to go, Sing-Lee told me: “I’m not boasting but it was my portrait that made Tretchi rich. They say more prints of Chinese Girl were sold throughout the world in the 1950s and 1960s than those of the Mona Lisa.
“When Tretchikoff was painting me, spiritually I wished so hard that this picture would become famous for him. Quite frankly, I knew all along it would be a success.”