27 November 2016

Tretchikoff's long-lost Lady of the Orchids rediscovered in Switzerland

Lady of the Orchids (1944)


Tretchikoff is a household name in the English-speaking world. Remarkably, one of his most elusive paintings has resurfaced in Switzerland. It will be sold by Schuler Auctioneers, Zurich, on 16 December 2016.

Few people in that country are familiar with his work. Yet reproductions of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl have adorned many thousands of homes in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United States. His paintings rank among the most reproduced artworks of the mid twentieth century.

Vladimir Tretchikoff, a Russian who grew up in China and engaged in oil painting in Southeast Asia, spent the most romantic period of his life in Jakarta during World War 2. After a spell as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, he was released by occupation authorities and allowed to pursue his artistic career in Java. 

One day, an anonymous admirer sent him a box of orchids. Those flowers, ten times as expensive as roses, were an exorbitant present in a city where everybody eked out the little money they had just to survive. 

For a few months, Tretchikoff received orchids twice every week. They were so many that they filled the house. The identity of the sender remained a mystery. The shop that delivered the flowers refused to reveal the buyer’s name. 

Tretchikoff regarded these gifts as an encouragement to continue painting. ‘Somebody evidently had faith in me’, he remembered. ‘And it grew to mean so very much, when all around was desolation, poverty and suffering.’

He imagined his mysterious benefactor as a woman. With each new picture he produced, he wondered if she would like it.

The painting that you are seeing is Tretchikoff’s tribute — her fictitious portrait. Although the title inscribed on the reverse side reads ‘Lady and the Orchid’, Tretchikoff always referred to it as his Lady of the Orchids afterwards.

The flower in this picture is a cattleya, ‘the queen of the orchids’. It appears to be the same species as the one in Tretchikoff’s celebrated Lost Orchid painting: the Cattleya warscewiczii. For its extraordinary size and splendour, this flower was better known as Cattleya gigas.

Tretchikoff described his style as ‘symbolic realism’. Nowhere was this more prominent than in his flower studies. He first painted them in Java, enchanted by the rainbow-like colours of cannas in the garden. In the Lady of the Orchids, one of his earliest flower-themed works, cannas can be seen in the background.

Leonora Moltema


His sitter for this work was Leonora Moltema-Salomonson. Being half-Indonesian and half-Dutch, Leonora — or Lenka as Tretchikoff affectionately called her — embodied for him ‘that intricate blend of the East and the West, the mixing of blood which produces the most beautiful of the world’s women’.
Although in Java, with its strong Muslim traditions, nudity was taboo, Leonora posed semi-naked for this, one of his best paintings from his Javanese period.

Leonora’s unflinching belief in his success helped Tretchikoff to persevere. His model and lover, she urged him not to sell his paintings so that he would be able to hold an exhibition after the war. Always interested in spiritualism, she took Tretchikoff to a séance where it was predicted that he would become famous across the world.

On his departure from Java in 1945, Tretchikoff took his Javanese canvases away with him. The Lady of the Orchids was a rare exception. 

The painting was purchased by Herbert Warren Schmidt, a Swiss who had moved to Java to work for a Dutch company. Held up in the wartime Jakarta, he was living close to Tretchikoff. To support the struggling young artist, he bought the picture.

Unlike other exceptional Tretchikoff canvases, it has never been exhibited or reproduced before.