Lot 1001
  • 1001

SANYU | Femme au peignoir vert

400,000 - 600,000 HKD
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  • Sanyu
  • Femme au peignoir vert
  • signed in Chinese and French
  • ink and watercolour on paper
  • 43 by 26.9 cm; 16 by 10 ⅝ in.
executed in 1920-30s


Hôtel Drouot Auction, Paris, September 1966
Collection of Jacques Nieszawer
Important Private Collection 


Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Drawings and Watercolors, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2014, plate W58, p. 186


The work is overall in good and its original condition, minor spots of surface dirt are apparent along the top border, and very slight wear along the four borders of the paper.
"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

Sanyu's Muses

In the fall of 2016, fifty years after Sanyu's death, Sotheby's Hong Kong offered a special auction from a private collection titled Ineffable Beauty: Sanyu's Figure Drawings. It was the largest ever sale of Sanyu's works on paper, writing a new page in history as more than three hundred on- and off-site bidders competed for more than twenty lots, all of which far surpassed their estimated prices. The auction not only established a new market position for Sanyu's works on paper, but also stimulated new interest among collectors for modern Asian art in this medium. Sotheby's is now fortunate to present the remaining three Sanyu watercolour portraits of women from the same major private collection. In terms of quality as well as historical significance, Femme au peignoir vert (Lot 1001), Femme à la robe violette avec un collier de perles (Lot 1002), and Lectrice à la jupe jaune (Lot 1003) are all first-rate works in the same category. These three works will open the 2018 Spring Auction with a reprise of Ineffable Beauty. Sanyu had a wild and uninhibited personality, and he was drawn to the bohemian atmosphere of Montparnasse. He abandoned his education in academic art in favour of a life of freedom and creativity: every corner of Paris was his studio. In the School of Paris, Amedeo Modigliani was known for his spare, elongated portraits. Sanyu also worked tirelessly on his portraiture, and like Modigliani, he painted his subjects with distorted and exaggerated figures. Whether they are nude or not, Sanyu's models are portrayed with small heads and large bodies. Their buttocks and feet in particular are amplified in forms that diverge from reality but retain a sense of humour, earning the description of "cosmic thighs" from Sanyu's lifelong friend Xu Zhimo. Sanyu's inspiration did not come only from models on the stage of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Sometimes he used fellow painters as his models; sometimes he dropped in at a nearby cafe and sketched the customers. The artist painted many people, but very few could be called his muse. The two models in the three works featured in this auction both played very special roles in Sanyu's artistic career, and it goes without saying that they lend rare value to these paintings. These female figures, created with the pretext of practice sketching, reveal the artist's curiosity, admiration, and desire for foreign women during his vigorous youth.

The figures in Femme au peignoir vert and Femme à la robe violette avec un collier de perles both feature the same short hair and heavy make-up, as well as similar facial features, because they were based on the same model. Her distinctive features reveal her to be Kiki de Montparnassse (Alice Prin), the legendary model of 1920s Parisian art circles. The extremely talented Kiki, who began modelling at the age of fourteen, was also a singer, actor, painter, and author. Her voluptuous and seductive figure won her the favour of the entire School of Paris, and more than a dozen Paris-based painters regarded her as a muse, including Tsuguharu Foujita, Moïse Kisling, Modigliani, and Man Ray. Kiki was the subject of countless famous paintings, and in his introduction to her memoirs, Ernest Hemingway described her as "the master of Montparnasse". Reflections of Kiki are also abundantly visible in Sanyu's sketches. According to the writings of the art critic Chen Yanfeng, who also lived in France, Sanyu's friends confirmed his relationship with Kiki; moreover, Kiki's memoirs mention her desire to study Chinese, another indication that she was close to Sanyu.

In Femme au peignoir vert, the half-naked Kiki reclines in a relaxed and contented posture that echoes a classic nude pose in Western art. Rich in amorous expression but also somewhat reserved, the composition recalls Venus of Urbino by the Renaissance master Titian. Her right leg is crossed over her left, displaying her legs in a charming manner while sedulously concealing her private parts from the viewer's gaze, inviting endless daydreams. Drawing on his masterful painting skills, Sanyu applies Chinese concepts to Western applications, using his brush to outline his subject's exquisite, buoyant form in concise, and lively lines. His fluid and agile hand shows no signs of hesitation, demonstrating the artist's confidence and skill with his brush: with a few simple strokes, he brings his subject vividly to life. Sanyu also uses various shades of red and pink for the model's body, face, and lips, forming a lovely colour contrast with the long-sleeved green shirt that she wears. The contrast lends an auspicious Eastern ambience to the tableau, like a green willow with red flowers. In addition to this bold use of colour, the contours in Femme au peignoir vert recall modern Western aesthetics, such as the terseness and purity of Expressionism and Fauvism. By combining these various threads, Sanyu created a unique painting style that blended East and West.

In Femme à la robe violette avec un collier de perles, a more heavily adorned Kiki is dressed in the Western fashion, with high-heeled shoes and a pearl necklace. Despite these extravagances, the model's chest and crotch are exposed, endowing the painting with a heady erotic air. She's also wearing iconic semi-transparent black stockings. According to the Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné, Drawings and Watercolors, the artist painted fewer than twenty watercolours of models in stockings, and only about ten of those paintings featured black stockings. Such paintings have been the subject of intense competition when they appear on the auction market, making this work difficult to overlook. Since its opening in 1889, the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre was a much-loved haunt of the artists of Paris, and the singing, dancing performers there often became the subjects of their artworks. In this painting, Kiki appears in the form of a dancing girl reclining in a highly seductive posture that unabashedly reflects the artist's fascination with the diverse manifestations of the female image. Having been influenced by Western art styles, Sanyu had a particularly acute sense of volume and texture, and Femme à la robe violette avec un collier de perles is a particularly strong example of his skill in creating skin textures and subtle shadows that enhance the figure's three-dimensionality. He also utilizes the liubai (open space) technique of traditional Chinese landscape painting to express the natural smoothness of the model's skin and the enticing glossiness of her silk stockings. By exploiting the contrast between the painted and blank areas of the paper, he captures his subject's personal aura. In this work, Sanyu's combination of Eastern and Western techniques yields an unexpectedly modern aesthetic result.