Details & Cataloguing

20th Century Chinese Art

Hong Kong

Sanyu (Chang Yu)
signed in pinyin and Chinese
executed circa 50s.
oil on masonite
64 by 53 cm. 25 1/4 by 20 7/8 in.
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Private American Collection
Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 2001
Christie's Hong Kong, November 2006
Important Private Asian Collection


Taipei, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - The Art of San Yu, October 13 - December 2, 2001


Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu - Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Yageo Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001, plate 152, p. 267, illustrated in colour
Guyao, ed., Sanyu, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, illustrated in colour  
Yi Zhuang, ed, World Famous Artist - San Yu, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, 2010, p. 141, illustrated in colour
Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu - Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Volume Two, The Li Ching Cultrural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011, plate 152, p. 133, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Important Private Asian Collection
Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums

Asian sentiments and passions embedded in floral drawings

“Vase with flowers” has been an ongoing theme in Sanyu’s artistic career. In the painter’s mind, they are self-portraits, and Potted Chrysanthemums uncovers Sanyu’s own graceful spirit. Still-life paintings have existed in Western art since the Renaissance, with a vase and flowers being a prominent example. Potted Chrysanthemums presents a significant contrast to the conventional simplicity inherent in this genre because it presents a mass of gorgeous and vibrant colours on a single canvas. Planted in this traditional blue-white square pot are marigolds in multiple hues, heightening the atmosphere of joyful celebration.

The perfect mix of vibrant colours

The use of colours in Potted Chrysanthemums is certainly the most effervescent of Sanyu’s “vase-with-flowers” paintings. He daringly lets the colours of the blue-white vase permeate the plant itself, neutralizing the rich colours between blossoms and background, generating a sense of rhythm between thick and thin textures, dark and light hues. While white symbolizes purity, blue designates royalty on European terms, adding an elegant, noble attribute to the work. The back wall is heavily set in deep red akin to Chinese dates, reminding us of traditional lacquer or screen walls, matched with vertical strokes that add to the smooth texture of Chinese furnishings, creating an aura of a homestead in the East. 

Unique aesthetic expression

As early as the 1920s, Sanyu began sketching with Chinese ink brushes. In this work, the artist even borrows the traditional technique of “iron-wire strokes” as the plant (shaped like deer antlers) supports the flowers and leaves with an astoundingly even proportion. The artist also raises the lower grid slightly, mediating the difference in perspective between the background and the plant. Ancient Chinese paintings often use this technique, and after the impressionist movement, the West also rid itself of singular perspectives. Potted Chrysanthemums incorporates both, making the work all the more astonishing.

Courtly fashion through the ages

If we put Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums and Giuseppe Castiglione’s Beauties Collection side by side, many similarities become apparent. Castiglione was an 18th-century Jesuit priest who became the premier Western painter in the Qing dynasty, and his student Pan-ta-li-sha’s Ginseng Blossoms further extended the lineage. This type of serendipity attests to how ancient and modern painters manifest their art.

Floral languages that sustain three millennia

If we apply semiotics to Sanyu’s floral paintings, we detect a deep connection with literati through the ages. Qu Yuan of the Warring States period first described flora and fauna in his epic poem Li Sao. By the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Tao Yuanming praised the beauty of chrysanthemums; during the Northern Song era, Confucian scholar Zhou Dunyi was partial to lotus blossoms. By the Qing dynasty, with Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, floral imagery was applied to the novel’s twelve beauties. This tradition of close association between flowers and the arts has continued unabated for three millennia. In the West, the origin of floriography only began with the 17th-century Ottoman Empire, flourishing in 19th-century France. Sanyu’s depiction of flowers can be traced to the immediate social context of his own time and place, yet we must also take into account the roots of his ancient motherland. Potted Chrysanthemums is an epitome of elegance and gentility, a veritable testament to Sanyu’s life-long energies displayed on canvas.

20th Century Chinese Art

Hong Kong