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Zao Wou-Ki

China 1920-2013. Painting. Artprice Index #11

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Artist Bio

Zao Wou-Ki (pinyin: Zhào Wújí; Wade–Giles: Chao Wu-chi; 1 February 1920 – 9 April 2013) was a Chinese-French painter. He was a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Zao Wou-Ki graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he studied under Fang Ganmin and Wu Dayu.

Zao was born in Beijing with family roots in Dantu, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. In his childhood he was brought back to his hometown Dantu where he studied calligraphy and gained acceptance to the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts. From 1935 to 1941, he studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, where he was taught by Lin Fengmian, Fang Ganmin, and Wu Dayu. In 1948, he went with his wife Xie Jinglan (謝景蘭), a composer, to Paris to live on the same block in Montparnasse where the classes of Émile Othon Friesz took place. His earliest exhibitions in France were met with praise from Joan Miró and Picasso.

Zao and his wife Lalan (Xie Jinglan) pursued their own careers, their son having stayed in China with Zao’s parents. In the mid-1950s, they were divorced. In 1957, Zao decided to visit the United States where his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai was living in Montclair, New Jersey, close to the art scene of New York City. He wanted to learn more about “pop art”. While in the US, he painted seven canvases at his brother’s house. There are relatively few items dating from that year (1957). Years later, the largest canvas was given by his brother, Chao Wu-Wai, to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

He left the U.S. after a six-week stay, traveling to Tokyo and then to Hong Kong, where he met his second wife Chan May-Kan (陈美琴, May Zao), a film actress who had two children from her first marriage. Under the influence of Zao, she became a successful sculptor. In 1972, she committed suicide at age 41 due to mental illness. In 1972, he also visited his family in China who he had not seen since 1948.

In 1997, he married his third wife Françoise Marquet, who now serves as president of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation.


Zao’s works, influenced by Paul Klee, are orientated to abstraction. He names them with the date in which he finishes them, and in them, masses of colors appear to materialize a creating world, like a Big Bang, where light structures the canvas. He worked formats in triptychs and diptychs. While his work was stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while traveling in New York, he was influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-Ki stated that he had been influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne.

His meetings with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based on Chinese traditional drawings. Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime.

In 1982, he was invited to paint for the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing, designed by I. M. Pei. I. M. Pei had a fellowship to Europe in the early 1950s and he met Wou-Ki at Galerie Claude Bernard, the gallery that represented Wou-Ki. In 1983, he returned to his alma mater, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou to give lectures.

Former French President Jacques Chirac was offered a painting by Zao Wou-Ki by his ministers during their last meeting.

By the end of his life, Zao had stopped producing new paintings due to health problems. He died on 9 April 2013 at his home in Switzerland.