Works by Sanyu at Sotheby's
Among the first wave of Chinese artists of the Paris School during the 1920s, Sanyu was a modernist master known for his nude studies and calligraphic style. His paintings are highly sought-after by collectors all over the world today, and some even refer to the artist as the “Chinese Matisse.” This was not always the case, however, as Sanyu’s works were largely overlooked during his lifetime.
Sanyu was born in 1895 to a wealthy family in Nanchong, Sichuan. He learned to paint from his father, Chang Shufang, and practiced calligraphy under the tutelage of Zhao Xi. He traveled to Japan in 1919 and then in 1921, inspired by the wave of students traveling to France under the government-sponsored program initiated by Cai Yuanpei, Sanyu departs for Paris to study art with the support of his brother Junmin. It was at this time that Sanyu began his love-affair with bohemian Paris. He thrived at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Unlike his compatriots, Sanyu did not return to his home country after finishing his studies but instead, remained in Paris. He experimented with reinterpretations of traditional Chinese art, developing a unique, cross-cultural aesthetic. He favored nudes, flowers and animals, with paintings that employed lighter colors and soft tones.
Art dealer Henri-Pierre Roché and composer Johan Franco were among those who promoted Sanyu’s work. Outside of Europe, admirers included the poet Xu Zhimo, the writer Shao Xunmei, the photographer Robert Frank, and fellow Sichuan artist Zhang Daqian. However, what began as a career of immense promise saw limited commercial success. As the vicissitudes of expatriate life and poverty took their toll, the artist’s later works took on richer, somber colors and frequently portrayed lonely, wandering animals.
In 1966, Sanyu died from a gas leak in his Paris apartment, and at the time of his death, had fallen into relative obscurity. How this artist achieved posthumous recognition today came through the efforts of Taiwanese art dealers who rediscovered his work in the intervening years. Two years before his death, Sanyu shipped many important paintings after he received an invitation to teach and hold a solo exhibition at Taiwan Normal University. His plans to return to Asia fell through, but the paintings have remained in the safekeeping of The National Museum of History, Taipei. In a 1992 Sotheby's auction, Sanyu garnered the spotlight, when one of his paintings fetched three times the estimate. The Guimet Museum, Paris, hosted an extensive retrospective of the artist’s works in 2005. Other important collections of his works are at the Cernuschi Museum, Paris, and the National Art Museum of China, Beijing.
Artist image: Courtesy of The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation