tretchie and chinese girl

by Art Chantry (

this image is one of the thrift store standards of american kitsch. it’s right up there with the ‘big-eyed’ paintings of walter and margaret keane (or any of the legion of copycats). it’s up there with patrick nagel and all those nail salon signs aping his look. it’s right up there with leroy neiman’s sports posters or anythnng peter max ever touched. this is generally referred to as “the blue lady” or “the green lady” (i usually use the ‘blue’ name). it’s real official name is “the chinese girl” and it was painted by a russian artist living in south africa named vladimir tretchikoff. the original was painted in 1951 and again in 1953. the first version was destroyed by a burglar (he slashed it). so, tretchikoff repainted it. that’s the version we all now know.

---just petty details. nobody gives a crap whether it's the real dress or not. sorry to be so picky. besides, i meant to say her original dress was red. but i screwed it up.

i know people who collect copies of this like baseball cards. one guy i met had maybe pushing 50 versions of it – different sizes, some framed, some unframed, cheap posters, art prints. most of them sun-faded and tattered. it’s made quite a wall of shame. i don’t think any god-fearing craphound in america has ever NOT owned one of these at one time or another. it’s a classic. for a brief spell it was the best selling image in the world. in the late 1950′s/early 1960′s, it literally outsold the mona lisa. no middle class home of taste and breeding was without one on their wall somewhere. it was an interior decor standard as important and indirect lighting and sectional couches. it was even to be seen in such movie classics as hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’, michael caine’s ‘Alfie’ and mick jagger’s ‘Performance’.

tretchikoff was such a big name in the popular art world that he self-published huge expensive books about his work. i own this one book (i scanned the cover for this image. the book was far bigger than my scanner could handle – and i have a BIG scanner) that is 15″x20″ and every page is a giant full color ‘tip-in” (an actual print glued to the page, suitable for framing). even the cover is dipped in gold ink, with that ubiquitous ‘blue lady’ tipped on the cover. it’s GLORIOUS! (as worf might comment). tretchikoff was awarded a gold medal by the new york graphic society (a rather prestigious honor) and was fested with grand dinners and swarming crowds and flashing paparazzi. again, it was GLORIOUS!

so, just who was this “blue lady”? after decades of mystery, a british journalist tripped across her a few years back totally by accident. her name was monika sing-lee. tretchikoff was tipped off about her beauty by a friend who spotted her working in a chinese laundry (owned by a relative). tretchikoff, always on the prowl for a pretty model to paint, hired her (paying her almost nothing) to pose for a few days. then she was sent on her way. he never actually let her see the painting(s) until he unveiled them at an opening. she was disappointed because it wasn’t her body, just her face. she also thought it was sorta dull. she expected him to do something a little more interesting. besides, he knew his public never went to galleries. so, the opening was in a department store. not very glamorous, ya know? monika was not impressed and forgot about it. she moved away, got married, raised a large family and and never gave it second thought ever again.

when she was interviewed by the reporter, nobody believed anybody. HE wanted some sort of proof she was the blue lady (it had been 50-60 years!), and SHE wanted proof about why he cared – she had no idea that her image had become a hugely popular staple of modern american kitsch. when she saw a documentary depicting her painting and the gushing accolades of her fans, she was totally surprised. when she brought out her photo album, the reporter was surprised, too. inside that album was all the proof he needed – it was obviously the real deal.

she told the story of her brief excursion into modeling (it was her only gig). and talked about tretchikoff as a nice funny older man who thought he was quite a “bohemian.” for instance, he always had a careful lock of curly hair hanging down over his forehead. that he was considered a very sloppy and romantic look back then, i guess. he was also sorta cheap and stingy. but he made her laugh.

eventually, the reporter managed to get monika together with vladi

to see what would happen. but, he refused to believe she was the real blue lady. he figgered her for another vulture trying to get a free copy of his work. but, eventually she convionced him and they had a fine visit. he pulled his last remaining copy of the original print run off his wall and gifted it to her to take home. he died in 2006.

she still calls him ‘tretchie’.


well, she was called both the green lady and the blue lady. i think the reason she was called the blue lady more often was because all those cheap 4-color repros faded real fast and the yellow went away, leaving her more blue than green. also, in the interview, she claimed the original dress was gold and some other colors. she thinks he posed his assistant (who was built more like the body depicted) and made up the dress/color scheme. so, that dress she posed in that you saw was a copy, not an original. there was no original dress like that. he made it up.

“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.” Read More:

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One Response to tretchie and chinese girl

  1. Doug says:

    Cheers for the good read. I was looking more into Tretchikoff and found this quite useful. So funny, this message sounds just like a spam message! I was visiting SA recently and I stumbled upon this image in a tatty white frame in a antique shop, quite a crazy crammed one. I instantly like and knew nothing of it. My dad informed me how popular it used to be. So its now on the my wall, minus glass as that didnt quite make the journey.

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