Vladimir Tretchikoff was one of the most commercially-successful artists of all time; believed to have earned more during his lifetime than any painter other than Picasso.
He fled with his wealthy family from the Russian Revolution to Herbin, in North China, and was orphaned there at the age of 11. He later moved to Singapore, where he held a variety of interesting jobs, including a spell working as a propaganda artist for the British Ministry of Information in 1941. This gave him the opportunity to paint many famous personalities of the day. When the Japanese invaded Singapore, Tretchikoff escaped in an open boat which was then bombed and he drifted in the Java Sea with 41 other survivors for 23 days before being recaptured by the Japanese and held in Singapore until the end of the war. At the end of the war, Tretchikoff and his wife resettled in Cape Town, South Africa, where his portraits of oriental women and, to a lesser extent, his floral studies rapidly brought him enormous popular acclaim around the world. The event which triggered his rise to particular fame was the publishing of a book of his work in 1950. The book became a best-seller overnight and led to a hugely-successful exhibition, which toured North America and London and attracted more visitors than an exhibition touring at the same time by Picasso and Rothko. His show at Harrods, in London, in 1961 was seen by 205,000 people.
Having lived in Shanghai and Singapore, the influence of the Far East and a fascination with the exotic can be seen in most of Tretchikoff’s work. His figure studies generally featured members of African tribes or oriental women and he was always fascinated with oriental flowers, such as magnolias, which he imbued with an emotional charge through the use of dramatic composition and stark colour schemes. Tretchikoff also used unconventional techniques in his work, such as combining brush and palette knife to lend his paintings more weight.
His work was so commercially successful, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s that it provoked extreme reactions. His most famous subject Chinese Lady, featuring an eastern model (who was the daughter of a San Francisco merchant) viewed through a blue filter, has been more widely reproduced than the Mona Lisa and is believed to be the best-selling commercial print of all time. It is still used today to define the style and artwork of an entire generation. The enormous print and poster sales of the 1960s and 1970s led to his work being derided by some critics as kitsch but sales were gigantic and recently Tretchikoff has been championed by post-modern artists and critics like Wayne Hemingway.
Vladimir Tretchikoff remained based in South Africa, where he died in August 2006. He received a full-page obituary in London’s Times newspaper, which opened: Vladimir Tretchikoff’s worldwide popularity made him a millionaire several times over, entirely on the strength of his work.