I was the Chinese Girl in Tretchikoff's painting

The painting Chinese girl and Monika Pon-su-san

Earlier this year Vladimir Tretchikoff's portrait Chinese Girl, often referred to as The Green Lady, was sold for almost £1m ($1.5m) at auction in London - a reflection of its status as one of the most popular prints ever made. The model, Monika Pon-su-san, recalls what it was like to be thrust into the limelight.

One day in 1950, a curly-haired stranger walked into my uncle's laundry in Cape Town, where I worked.

He stood there as I served a customer, his eyes fixed on me the whole time. He only spoke when we were alone together in the shop.

"Hello!" he said. "I'm Tretchikoff. I'd love to paint you."

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I thought I looked like a monster from a horror film - I pulled an ugly face and said 'Ugh - green face!' ”

End Quote Monika Pon-su-san

At that time Vladimir Tretchikoff wasn't very famous but by chance I had read about him in a newspaper just the Saturday before.

So I was a bit nervous, but I said yes. He picked me up after work and took me back home.

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.

A lot of people ask me: "What is that stern look you had on your face? What were you thinking about?" And I always say: "Well you know, one gets tired sitting and just looking."

Monika Pon-su-san

All the time I was thinking about Tretchikoff's life. Because 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.

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Monika Pon-su-san spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service

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.

I liked him very much. He was a funny man - we always laughed a lot. In all, I was paid six pounds and five shillings for the work.

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.

Monika Pon-su-san

I would nag him: "What are you going to call it?" He said that a name would come to him later on. It was only at the end of the six or 10 weeks - I can't remember exactly how long it took - on the night his exhibition opened that he said it was called Chinese Girl. I thought that was very ordinary.

Monika Pon-su-san

  • In her late teens when she posed for Tretchikoff
  • Sat for two portraits. In the other her tunic is shown in its real colours, blue and pink
  • After school, she got married and moved to Johannesburg, where she had five children
  • Worked in the family fish and chip shop, and as a shipping clerk
  • She never posed for another painting

And when I saw the painting I was so shocked. I thought I looked like a monster from a horror film. I pulled an ugly face and said: "Ugh - green face!"

Right away people started to recognise me. I remember going to a supermarket and a woman shouted: "Look at this girl! She looks just like the painting!"

I decided I had to buy a print. By the time I went to him Tretchikoff had run out, so he gave me one he had used in London when he was on tour. I've got it in my lounge.

Monika Pon-su-san

There was a block of flats in Cape Town, filled with artists. The man on the ground floor was a sculptor and one day he asked Tretchikoff: "Can I borrow your model?" He wanted to cast a bronze of my face. But Tretchikoff said: "Certainly not!"

Previously in the Magazine

"There is a subtle innocence in the face, there is some kind of spiritual ambience about that painting. It radiates an aura of peace of mind."

Uri Geller, magician

I had so many modelling offers but - stupid me - I went and got married and had children, so that was that. I didn't socialise much, with five children to look after, so I was hidden away from Cape Town's artists. The offers stopped coming.

I was so disappointed to miss the auction recently. My daughters said to me: "The painting's sold! The painting's sold!" And when I found out it had gone for £1m, I jumped up and down, up and down!

Everybody's fascinated by that painting. I don't know what it is about it really.

Monika Pon-su-san

One of my daughters - the second youngest, who is supposed to look like me - said: "I wish I had a lot of money and then I would buy that painting and keep it forever in my own house."

When I was asked by a journalist if I would let another artist paint me at this moment in time, I said: "No… but if Tretchikoff were alive, I would let him paint me again."

You can listen to Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen back to Monika Pon-su-san's interview via iplayer or browse the Outlook podcast archive.

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