Lot 1003
  • 1003

Sanyu (Chang Yu)

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 HKD
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  • Sanyu (Chang Yu)
  • Fish
  • signed in Pinyin and Chinese
  • oil on paperboard
executed circa the 1960s


Collection of Chang Yi-an
Important Private American Collection


Rita Yi, ed., Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings, Yageo Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001, pl. 250, p. 376
Sanyu: Language of the Body, Skira and ARAA, Milan, 2004, p. 93
Gu Yue, ed., World Famous Artist: Sanyu, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, 2007, p. 243
Yi Zhaung, ed., World Famous Artist: Sanyu, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, 2010, p. 77
Rita Yi, ed., Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings Volume II, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011, pl. 250, p. 145
Ten Spring Flowers Blooming: An American Collection of Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, 2012, pp. 242-243


This work is overall in good condition. Under UV: there is evidence of signs of touch ups in the center of the work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The Worldly-Wisdom and Poetry of the Parisian Loafer

Sanyu’s Exquisite Fish

Among the Chinese pioneers in oil painting, only Sanyu remained in Paris for his whole life. From the 1920s to 60s, the artist not only witnessed his share of glitter and glamour, he also shared in many of the great historic shifts and turns of that period. Fish (Lot1003), completed during this period, is not only a landscape painting from life, but a commentary on the artist’s personal circumstances. The circulation of the painting itself is also a sketch of the artist’s later life, and reveals a map of the interconnected web of influential overseas Chinese, adding to the legendary quality of the painting.

Western Landscape Painting Meets Chinese Fish-and-Water-Plant Painting 

On first impression, Fish presents itself to the viewer as a beautiful and vivacious painting from life. In the near-opaque aqua jade of the river, five vividly orange fish are swimming, leisurely – perhaps they are in the act of congregating, or equally likely, the act of scattering. Shadows are cast upon the bottom of the river, its depths uneven, revealing sunlight that strikes the water from the left, illuminating the shallower waters on the right side of the canvas. The artist must have captured this river scene, it appears, at sunset. 

Fish showcases the artist’s great skill in rendering natural scenery with oils. From the perspective of Western art, this work ought to be classified as a landscape painting-from-life. Yet within the context of Western art, fish are traditionally regarded as still-life subjects, confined to the environments of kitchens or markets, as ingredients for a meal, and portrayed as plump and appetizing meals. This is not the case in Chinese art. Chinese art historian Li Lincan once wrote, in a chapter entitled ‘Fish and Water Plant Painting’ in his book History of Chinese Art, that “Fish and water plant paintings are one of the subjects of Chinese art. Full of exuberance and vitality, they symbolize the infinite source of vitality in Chinese culture”. Starting with Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers by Northern Song dynasty painter Liu Cai, swimming fish have represented, in Chinese literati painting, freedom and vitality. On the flip side is the homophonous folk symbolism of fish representing “abundance”. The fish have become a subject, then, that is versatile in its connotation and context, equally appropriate in high-art and folk culture. Sanyu’s Fish, is rendered with Western tools and methodology, yet simultaneously utilizes, introduces and modernizes Chinese art traditions.

Blending Minimalism and Abstractionism into the Landscape

Once he arrived in Paris, Sanyu began emphasizing minimalism and concision in his application of colour and lines, a tendency aligned with the Fauvist trends of the early 20th century. Thus, Sanyu was often referred to as the “Matisse of the East”. After the rise of Abstractionism and Minimalism following the Second World War, the artist travelled to New York, where he stayed from 1948 to 1950, during which time he absorbed a plethora of fresh, new ideas, his artistic style deepening and growing ever more sophisticated. Compared to his earlier works, Fish is more striking in its minimalism, and were one to cast away its subject, the piece could be interpreted as an abstract work. In his use of colour, Sanyu maintains a combination of simplicity and force. The colour of the water, inflected by the light, manifests as golden yellow to emerald green; the tension and movement of the water are portrayed by the calligraphic techniques that Sanyu had mastered from a young age. Both the figurative and concrete objects are rendered with a freehand and abstractionist brush. The free-flowing elegance of Sanyu’s creative process remains visible upon the canvas, deeply echoing the burgeoning wave of abstractionism in the 1950s. To place Fish alongside Sanyu’s Goldfish, one can see clearly his absorption in extreme minimalism and abstractionism during this period. 

Projection of Life Circumstances; Reflections of Daoist Philosophy

It does not appear, based on what is known of his existing works, that Sanyu left the world with any self-portraits, but his works are intensely autobiographical and self-referential. Sanyu’s early work Goldfish, which also depicts swimming fish, uses a festive and joyful backdrop with eight fish swimming in a glass jar. This scene echoes the joys of intimacy in the artist’s life after a recent marriage, but at the same time, invokes the metaphor of confinement, as the fish are constrained by the glass jar. In the 1950s and 60s, the artist was single again, and the fish he depicted swam freely in natural waters. As he once said to artist and friend Huang Jilu, “I am content by myself, I don’t need a family. Alone, I paint when I want to paint, play when I want to play. I am carefree, I don’t feel lonely”. Compared to the restricted fish in the jar, the images of the fish swimming in nature appear relatively small, yet they are awarded the pleasure of a larger, wider world. This wisdom derived from experience reflected the freedom of Sanyu’s later years.

Sanyu’s Fish is not without Daoist underpinnings. To look at the spatial composition of Fish, one notices that it diverges from the traditional composition of Chinese fish and water plant paintings; the tension that emerges from the intentional positioning of the fish – whether they are joining together or dispersing– or any connotations of fortune, are merely spontaneous. The fish exist naturally and are carefree, exhibiting the freedom and ease recommended in Zhuangzi’s fable. Zhuangzi speaks on fish again in Flood of Autumn, claiming that he knows ‘the happiness of fish’, expounding upon the self-sufficient and self-satisfying nature of life with the famous words: “You are not I; how do you know that I do not know their happiness”. This could have been Sanyu’s mantra in his later years, and Fish can be regarded as the windows that guides the viewer, offering a glimpse, into the artist’s inner world.

A Provenance that Brings to Light the Connections between Influential Overseas Chinese

Putting from the work itself aside, the journey of Fish is also highly worthy of examination. After Fish was completed, it first came into the hands of pianist Chang Yi-an , who was based in the United States. In 1956 when Chang was in Paris on a concert tour, she met the artist, and the two quickly formed a deep friendship. In 1996, Chang provided the following statement about how, as a student, she could not have resisted Sanyu’s charm and succumbed to collecting her first piece of artwork: “I was immediately bowled over by the uniqueness of his painting style. Each work displays his unusual vision and taste, innocent and worldly-wise all at once, bestowing a kind of profundity upon a playful game of life”. As one of Sanyu’s friends until the end of his life, the artist left two of his paintings to Chang as a memento.

Chang Yi-an’s own lineage is blue-blooded, her father Chang Hsin-hai a doctoral graduate of Harvard and a renowned diplomat, her mother Han Xiangmei a master’s student from the University of Chicago, and one of China’s earliest female professors, equal in literary fame to Bing Xin, Lin Huiyin, and Ling Shuhua. Her aunt Zhang Youyi was Xu Zhimo’s first wife, and Chang’s own husband is famed composer Chou Wen-chung, who, together with I.M. Pei and Zao Wou-Ki are hailed as ‘The Three Treasures of Overseas Chinese’. Chou’s teacher Edgard Varèse is not only known as the ‘Father of Electronic Music’, he was also a lifelong friend of Zao Wou-Ki. And Chou’s student, Tan Dun, was the winner of the Oscar for Best Music in the 2001 Academy Awards for his work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The origins of Fish are extraordinary, not only an important subject in understanding Sanyu’s later life, but also an important instrument in teasing out the threads of connection among the influential figures of 20th century overseas Chinese. In addition to its artistic value, this work carries with it significant historic weight. Among Sanyu’s works at the Taipei Museum of History, it is another Fish that is closest in size and dimension to Fish, its style most remarkably similar. Both works are easily identified as being from the same period. This piece has rarely been displayed in decades, and is considered one of the finest treasures of the museum, a precious gem.