Tretchikoff’s Chinese model


Monika Pon-su-san, then and now.

Monika Pon-su-san, then and now.

Vladimir Tretchikoff was a self-taught Siberian artist who painted realistic figures, portraits, still life and animals, with subjects often inspired by his early life in China where his family moved to during the Russian Revolution in 1917, thence to Malaysia with his equally Russian emigrant wife and later to South Africa.

One of Tretchikoff’s famous paintings is the Chinese Girl, often referred to as The Green Lady with blazing scarlet lips. It is best known for the unusual skin tone used for her face – a blue-green color, thus, The Green Lady moniker.

Many were so fascinated by this 1950 exotic portrait that it became one of the most recognizable and reproduced pictures in the world.

Its reproduction could be seen in T-shirts, mugs and posters. It can even be seen, during the 60s and 70s, as a painting hanging in the background of a movie story or TV episode.

The reproductions were so popular that it was said Tretchikoff was second only to Picasso in popularity.

But, the most fascinated of them all was Tretchikoff’s Chinese model herself, who could not believe, when told excitedly by her daughter, that the painter’s original portrait of her was sold for almost   $1.5 million (£982,050) at Bonhams auction house in London on March 20, 2013. The painting was purchased by British jeweller Laurence Graff and will go on public display in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Monika, the Chinese model

Monika, the Chinese model

Monika Pon-su-san was only 17 when Tretchikoff spotted her working in her uncle’s launderette in South Africa.

She recalls that sometime in 1950, a curly-haired stranger walked in, while she was serving a customer, and noticed that he was staring at her all the time. The only time he spoke was when they were alone and said: “Hello! I’m Tretchikoff. I’d love to paint you.”

According to Monika, at that time Tretchikoff wasn’t very famous yet, but she has read and heard about him. Feeling nervous, she consented, nevertheless. And that is how she became Tretchikoff’s model.

“I was given his wife’s gown to put on. It was silk chiffon – beautiful, beautiful stuff. It wasn’t yellow like in the painting – that was his own invention,” she reminisces.

All the time Tretchikoff was painting her, she said, she was also thinking about the painter’s life.  He had had a miserable life – during the war he’d been on a boat for three weeks without food, after his ship was bombed. Then he was imprisoned by the Japanese.

He had lost contact with his wife and daughter. Thinking they were dead he took a lover, but they weren’t dead, and as fate would have it they went to Cape Town, which is where he ended up too. So they got back together again.

Monika remembers Tretchikoff as a likable and funny man. “We always laughed a lot. In all, I was paid six pounds and five shillings for the work.” (Certainly, a meager amount compared to today’s fee for models. – Quierosaber)

She recalls he had a class of about 20 pupils. “All the time I was sitting for him they could see me but I was never allowed to see the painting – it always had its back to me.”

She said she would nag Tretchikoff: “What are you going to call it?” He said that a name would come to him later on.

After 6 or 10 weeks, she can’t remember clearly now, it was finally exhibited to the public, among his other paintings, and he called her portrait, Chinese Girl.

Monika now recalls that when she saw the painting, she was shocked! She thought she looked like a monster from a horror film. She pulled an ugly face, saying, “Ugh – green face!”

But, since then, Monika also became famous, as people started recognizing her as the girl in the painting.

Like others, what she has is simply a reproduction of her own portrait that she displays in her lounge.

This prompted one of Monika’s daughters – the second youngest, who is her spitting image, to comment, thus:  “I wish I had a lot of money and then I would buy that painting and keep it forever in my own house.”


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