Vladimir Tretchikoff Artist Biography

Vladimir Tretchikoff was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time and his painting Chinese Girl (popularly known as The Green Lady) is one of most popular and the best-selling art prints. Full of mystery, chance and adventure, his life was as romantic as his art. Vladimir Grigoryevich Tretchikoff was born in December 1913, in Petropavlovsk in the Russian Empire (now Petropavl in Kazakhstan). He was the youngest of eight children born to a wealthy family. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the family had to flee to Harbin, a city in China with a large Russian presence. Until the age of 16, he studied at the Manchurian College and worked as a scene painter at the city’s Russian opera house.


At the age of 16, Vladimir Tretchikoff received a commission from the Chinese-Eastern railway for portraits of Lenin and Sum Yat San, to hang in their new headquarters. In 1932, on the proceeds, he took himself off to Shanghai, where he became an art cartoonist for the English language Shanghai Times. In his free time, he drew cartoons for local Russian and English language magazines. In Shanghai, he met Natalie Telpougoff, a Russian refugee from the communist regime. The couple married in 1935 and moved to Singapore. In 1936, Vladimir Tretchikoff worked in advertising, drew cartoons for the Straits Times and secretly worked for the British ministry of Information, illustrating anti-Japanese and anti-axis propaganda posters and pamphlets. He continued to paint all the while. In 1938, such were colonial tastes that his work acquired a popular following Vladimir Tretchikoff represented Malaya at the New York World’s Fair, hanging alongside Maurice de Vlaminck and Duncan Grant.


In 1940, during the Second World War, he saw an opportunity and suggested to his editor and to the head of the ministry that he should do some sketches of the war leaders. The two agreed and for the next few weeks he found himself with a list of who’s who in the British war machine in the East posing for him. His idyll was abruptly ended when the Second World War spread to the pacific in 1940. When the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1941, Natalie and their daughter Mimi were evacuated. The later boat on which Vladimir Tretchikoff escaped was torpedoes and he found himself on a small boat with fellow refugees rowing for his life across the Java sea. They were nearly taken by the sea and came close to starving to death with scurvy, but he used his ingenuity to negotiate with local tribesmen (he used his drawing skills to charm and communicate) and eventually arrive in Java. Once in Java, Vladimir Tretchikoff was captured in 1942 by the Japanese and held in solitary confinement for three months. Miraculously he managed to paint his way to freedom. His release depended on him proving himself to be an artist and he found himself painting sets for a gala performance in Djakarta. Luckily, his work suitably impressed and before long clients in Java flocked to Vladimir Tretchikoff to have their portraits drawn. He was introduced to a girl called Leonora Moltena who instantly mesmerised him.

After a visit to a seance he was prompted by his muse Leonora Moltema, he followed a lead to the South and, through the Red Cross, found his wife and daughter. Five years after separating, he met his wife and daughter on the platform 13 at Cape Town Station, on the 13th of August 1946.


The next year the family’s home was unexpectedly visited by a plump pigeon that made him feel quite at home. In Russian culture it is good luck to be visited by a bird and the numbers on the tag on the pigeon’s leg added up to 13. The pigeon was invited to become part of the family and Vladimir Tretchikoff quickly took a turn for the better. His first exhibition was a sell-out success. Further shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg sold numerous canvases for a sizeable sum. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Vladimir Tretchikoff success continued to grow. His fame spread around the world. In Seattle, a rival exhibition which included work by Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko sold fewer tickets that Vladimir Tretchikoff. In 1961, he had a large exhibition in the ground-floor exhibition space of Harrods in London (he decided that the Harrods art gallery was too small) which was attended by around 200,000 people. Over the course of his career he had 252 worldwide exhibitions, with a total attendance of approximately 2,298,000. In 1973, Vladimir Tretchikoff published his autobiography, Pigeons Luck with Anthony Hocking. The book was a thrilling account of his wartime experiences. In the late 70’s he retired to his personally designed mansion and grew old together with Natalie, spending time with their daughter Mimi and four granddaughters.


In 2002 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to paint.


He died at the age of 92 in 2006, in Cape Town, South Africa, his home since 1946. Vladimir Tretchikoff work has been immensely popular with the general public, but widely criticized by art critics. He has been labelled as the king of kitsch, although his many fans compared his often garishly coloured art to Andy Warhol's.


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