Excerpt from The Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1905
English translation by Stephen Mitchell
In the early 20th century, a new trend of exploring Africa emerged in Europe, and evoked much curiosity and fascination amongst the European aristocrats and intellectuals. Sanyu, who was active in Paris at the time, also seemed to have been inspired by the trend and began to create works with animals as his subject matter, using them as metaphors for his personality and life. Léopard (Lot 1018), created in 1931, was the earliest among the animal paintings personally dated by the artist, and is also the only leopard painting by Sanyu over 100cm currently held in private collections. Soon after Léopard was completed, it was acquired by a close friend of the artist - French novelist and collector Henri Pierre-Roché, who wrote about the work in his personal collection list. At the beginning of the 21st century, Léopard was selected to be included in many important exhibitions, including Sanyu: l'écriture du corps at the Musée des art asiatiques Guimet in 2004, a major retrospective testament to the importance of this work.
As an artistic subject, wild beasts are not simply living beings in nature – often they are given subjective, symbolic meanings. Leopards represent freedom, wit, as well as nimble and mysterious qualities – the Han dynasty’s reference to the hidden leopard in Southern Mountain; the Egyptians’ use of leopards as the basis of their deities’ figures, stemming from their reverence of felines. Sanyu’s personality was honest and straightforward by nature, not bound by conventions. As a young person, he led a comfortable life, assimilating into the Parisian way of life with ease. This state of life, one of joy and of being at ease, is most thoroughly reflected in his animal paintings. Léopard is an autobiographical statement: the viewer can see that the creature in the painting shows no aggression whatsoever. It does not appear to be in any way defensive, simply enjoying its existence and the surrounding environment, relishing the moment. In this surreal setting, it subtly displays a spiritual power towering above the mortal flesh.
Shortly before Léopard was created, the artist’s close friend Henri-Pierre Roché mentioned in his diary: “I often have lunch at Sanyu’s home…he showed me some new works, he scratched on painted canvas to create new patterns.”( Roché’s Diary, 7 April, 1930, Monday). He was aesthetically sensitive and his accounts showed clear insights into the unique quality of this technique, which “subtracts to add”, and Léopard is an outstanding example of this. By examining the present work closely, one can see that the lines scratched using a painting knife or the end of a paint brush display a rhythmic quality that breaths and pulsates. The leopard’s body is heavily imbued with vitality, even the spots on its skin exhibit a sense of motion, as if they are pearls falling onto a jade plate, - a testament to the artist’s contented state of creativity.
In the early 20th century, the image of the leopard was not only applied to masculinity, but also became representative of feminine allure. The concept first appeared in the poster La Femme à la Panthère by artist George Barbier for Cartier in 1914. In 1933, renowned designer Jeanne Toussaint, nicknamed 'The Panther', accepted the position of creative director at Cartier; and at this time the panther became the brand’s new icon. In Paris at the time, Sanyu was equally in vogue after completing Léopard in 1931. In the 20s and 30s, Sanyu’s animal works were brimming with subtle metaphors of love and marriage. From 1928 to 1931, he was married to Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardroyère in France. During this period, horses frequently featured in his art, because his pet name for Marcelle was Ma Su (“Ma” is horse in Chinese). The image of the leopard is one of balanced yin and yang, thus offering the opportunity for a fairly open interpretation. By comparing the present work to Sanyu’s nude oil paintings, one can see that the leopard and the women share the same body language, displaying the artist’s creative blend of humour and eroticism. It is also very likely that the leopard is being used as a a metaphorical expression of his love for Marcelle.
As a masterpiece of Sanya’s animal works, Léopard is often used to study the changes in his oil painting style between his early period (30s to 40s) and his later period (after 1950s). By comparing this work with his animal paintings from the 50s, currently in the collection of the Taipei Museum of History, the leopard occupies a large part of the canvas in the present piece, whereas in the Museum of History examples, the animals only occupy a small portion of the canvas. In recent years, Sanyu’s works have been keenly sought after at auction. His works exceeding one metre in dimension have already surpassed HK$ 70 million, even pushing close to HK$ 100 million. As the only work of its kind on the market, Léopard, which will be offered in the upcoming evening autumn sale at Sotheby’s, presents a very rare opportunity for art collectors indeed.
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