Lot 1011
  • 1011

SANYU | Nu endormi

20,000,000 - 30,000,000 HKD
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  • Sanyu
  • Nu endormi
  • signed in Chinese and French
  • oil on board
  • 50 by 100 cm; 19 ⅝ by 39 ⅜ in.
executed in 1950s


Collection of Lévy family (Acquired directly from the artist in 1965)


Paris, Levy Residence, SAN-YU, 17 December 1965
Taipei, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland – The Art of San Yu, 13 October – 2 December 2001


Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Yageo Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001, plate 31, p. 130
Pauline Kao, ed., In Search of a Homeland – The Art of San Yu, National Museum of History, Taipei, 2001, plate 20, p. 28, 55
Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume Two, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011, plate 31, p. 119
Pauline Kao, ed., Parisian Nostalgia: The National Museum of History’s Sanyu Collection, National Museum of History, Taipei, 2017, plate 18, p. 25


The work is overall in good and its original condition. It has been recently cleaned and restoration report is available upon request. The frame of the work was originally made by the artist and was exhibited in 1965.
"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

I don’t know what direction
the wind blows –
I’m dreaming,
swirling in the light ripple of dreams.

I don’t know what direction
the wind blows –
I’m dreaming,
her tenderness, my infatuation.

I don’t know what direction
the wind blows –
I’m dreaming,
sweetness glittering in my dreams.

Excerpt from Xu Zhimo, I don’t know what direction the wind blows.
From Crescent Magazine, Vol. I, No. 1, March 10, 1928

In the early twentieth century, an unprecedented wave of romanticism surged across China, pushing the new poetry movement, “The Crescent School,” to its pinnacle. The leader of the movement, Xu Zhimo, possessed a deep admiration for Sanyu, who he had met in Paris. In the poet’s essay collection Tidbits from Paris, he details many of his experiences while in the city of flowers. In the piece “Sir, Have You Seen Bright, Gorgeous Flesh?” Xu Zhimo describes his memories of Sanyu. While keeping the artist’s name unspoken, Xu Zhimo writes of his admiration for the artist, and celebrates Sanyu’s enchantment with the beauty of the nude female figure. Beginning in the 1920s with drawings on paper, Sanyu created countless alluring depictions of the female form. These women are slender and full-figured, clothed and nude, in states of leisure or engaged in the activity of daily life. Relentlessly, Sanyu observed and captured feminine beauty as it existed in a single moment, and boldly exposed man’s innate curiosity and desire toward women. With calligraphic lines and modern colours, these depictions of women unfurled upon the canvas, becoming the most important subject of the artist’s career. Large-scale oil paintings by Sanyu, however, have rarely been available on the international auction stage. In the past thirty years, there have only been six pieces measuring over 100 cm, the last one offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Autumn Sale in 2011. This sparse record is a testament to Sanyu collectors’ deep attachment to his paintings. Now, seven years later, Sotheby’s is honoured to present at this season’s Evening Sale, Nu endormi (Lot 1011). Not only are the measurements of the painting unusually impressive at 50 x 100 cm[1], the model featured in the piece is a link to both the emotional world of the artist during the prime of his life, as well as his deep friendship with Zhang Daqian. This piece originates from the Lévy family, with whom Sanyu was very close during his later years. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu shared close ties with many members of the Lévy family, and they are one of the few remaining Sanyu collectors who knew the artist personally. In that sense, the Lévys are also a key to deciphering the artist’s life. In December of 1965, the Lévy family generously provided their atelier on Montparnasse to host Sanyu’s final solo exhibition. Nu endormi was included in the exhibit, and subsequently purchased by the Lévy family. After 60 years of careful collection, the descendants of the Lévy family are finally releasing the piece. The provenance of this painting is of important academic value, illuminating the circumstances of the artist’s final exhibition, which confers upon the work – in addition to its aesthetic value – extraordinary historical meaning.

Brushstrokes of deep emotion: Sanyu’s Eve in the Garden of Eden

Possessing a gentle and sensitive temperament, Sanyu enjoyed playing the violin and tennis – even inventing the sport “ping-pong tennis” – and was often turning the pages of the Dream of Red Mansions. Old photos show his studio exuding a matching sensibility. The studio was surrounded by the artist’s paintings, and everywhere there were rare and exotic plants, as well as animals, like an artistic daguanyuan, a garden nourishing the soul. The nude women created under Sanyu’s brush are the “golden hairpins” in the daguanyuan garden, the Eves in the Garden of Eden, the subjects unto which the artist poured his affections. Warmth and sweetness radiate from Nu endormi, whose canvas dimensions are similar to that of a movie screen. The painting features a reclined, golden-haired beauty. Her hair falls to her shoulders, her almond eyes are hazy, and her upper body rests comfortably into a pillow. She is curled up in a delicious sleep, her posture like a curved spring Begonia. Unlike Sanyu’s typically erotic portrayal of nude female figures, this painting does not emphasize the woman’s sexuality. Rather, a blanket covers the beauty’s body, revealing only her face and a glimpse of leg. If one examines the painting closely, one can see the gorgeous curves hidden beneath the blanket, a clue that suggests Sanyu must first have completed an outline of the woman’s figure before covering it with the blanket. This process creates a partially-revealed, partially-concealed visual effect, which bestows the piece with endless intrigue, as well as with the artist’s profound feelings for his cherished beauty.

In the Book of Genesis, when God creates Eve, Adam says, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” It is a verse that embodies male protectiveness, an attitude expressed with particular intensity in this painting of Sanyu’s. With the invisible hand of the creator, the sleeping beauty is protected against harm. The full-bodied ink and unrestrained brushstrokes create a dreamland full of warmth. The graceful, ethereal oil colour spreads across the romantic, peaceful world, becoming the beauty’s eternal home. Contained in the brushstrokes are the artist’s deep emotions, expressing a gentleness that seeps into the sleeping beauty’s dreams. For an artist who spent half of his life as a romantically liberal and exuberant man, here he exhibits an unusual yearning for stability. 

Nu endormi: Deciphering the Love of Sanyu’s Prime

The unique aura and conceit of Nu endormi is tied to the special identity of the female model. The subjects of Sanyu’s paintings were often not simply models, but rather, important figures in his life. In the 1920s, the famous Kiki de Montparnasse, for example, or Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyere, who was engaged to Sanyu in the 1930s, often made appearances in Sanyu’s works. In the 1950s, approaching his prime, the artist, with his unwavering air of elegance, was never without companions of the opposite sex. According to a monography published in 1995 by the art critic Chen Yanfeng, the artist was dating a blonde woman in the 1950s and 1960s, who he then introduced to Chang Daqian as a model:

“In February of 1960, Zhang Daqian, a fellow Sichuanese, travelled to Paris for a solo exhibition. On that occasion, Sanyu introduced his blonde girlfriend to serve as a model for Chang, which resulted in the small piece Weimian Zhuangmozuoyang (or Rather Posed). That time, Lalan had accompanied Sanyu to Zhang Daqian’s exhibition at the Parisian Chinese Art Museum [note: presumably the Musée Cernusch]. Days later, Zhang gave him a signed photo from the event.”

Today this portrait by Zhang Daqian of Sanyu’s girlfriend belongs to the collection at Taipei’s National Museum of History. On it are Daqian’s words: “A model posing, showing off her skill, echoing the women on Zhou Fang’s screens. One steps into an ethereal fairyland, yet the waters and blossoms can’t be touched. Five years ago in Paris, Sanyu introduced a model to me, a delicate beauty. This is written about her. A light-hearted piece. December 12, 1960, Yuan Ong.” It is worth mentioning that although Zhang’s piece was created in 1960, he specifically indicates that it was five years previous that he had been introduced to Sanyu’s model. Consulting Daqian’s life history, 1956 was the very year he was invited by Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne for his first solo exhibition in the city. It was then that Zhang had his historic encounter with Picasso, and met with many of the Chinese émigrés in France, including Sanyu, Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-ki, and Lalan. Both Sanyu and Zhang Daqian were natives of Sichuan, and the two immediately forged a deep bomd. Not only did Sanyu introduce his girlfriend to serve as Chang Daqian’s model, Chang Daqian held Sanyu in high esteem, inviting him to design the catalogue for his own solo exhibition at the Musée Cernusch in 1961, a gesture that became a well-known story.

In a large group photo from 1963, titled “Spring Autumn Painting Gathering” and taken in Sanyu’s studio, one can see Sanyu’s female companion sitting above the first row. Comparing it to Zhang Daqian’s piece, the features are nearly identical. Comparing, also, the subject in Daqian’s piece to the woman in Nu endormi only further validates the identity of this woman. Undoubtedly, Sanyu’s Nu endormi was his lover at the time. Viewers of the painting can see that the artist has captured the character of the model with utter ease and facility, and that the work radiates with a natural happiness and affection.

A Friendship in the Later Years: Sixty Years of Precious Caretaking

The 50s were Sanyu’s prime years. During that time, the artist’s ideas and creativity reached their peak. Having endured the passage of an era, his lofty ambition remained undiminished, and he created many important works, including Nu endormi as well as the large-scale oil paintings collected at Taipei’s National Museum of History. This decade marked a new, vibrant stage in his life. Sanyu became increasingly lively in the Eastern and Western art circles, taking initiative in ways that he had not done in his younger years.

Sanyu kept in close contact with the group of “New Generation” artists that had left China for Paris after the war, including Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Hsiao Chin, and Lalan. This generation of younger artists greatly respect and admired Sanyu. Wu Guanzhong, Shiy De-Jinn, and Hsiung Ping-Ming had even written and dedicated a special public tribute to Sanyu. Additionally, the artist was often in contact with Zhu Hailun, the wife of artistic pioneer Yun Gee, who was living in the States, as well as Cultural Minister of the Nationalist Government Kuo Yu-Shou, who resided in France, and also the Minister of Education Huang Jilu. These correspondences seem to indicate that the artist was considering a return to the East. But most of all, these interactions are a testament to Sanyu’s urgent desire to firmly establish his reputation within the artistic canon. Nu endormi, one of Sanyu’s great artistic creations, was thus created during this time of grand ambition.

Nu endormi has appeared not only in two of Sanyu’s collected works, it was also featured in Taipei’s National Museum of History’s exhibition in 2001, “In Search of a Homeland – the Art of Sanyu.” Last year, a retrospective was held at the same museum, an event that created a sensation around the globe, titled, “Parisian Nostalgia: The National Museum of History’s Sanyu Collection.” This piece was consulted as important reference material, and collected into the exhibition catalogue. Over the years, Nu endormi has occupied a position of great importance in Sanyu’s exhibitions and publications, in part due to its clear provenance, belonging to the Lévy family. Sanyu was very close with the Lévy family in the 1950s and 1960s. The artist first met the photographer Daniel Lévy, and later became friends with the photographer’s wife, the composer Pamela Forrest. In the summer of 1965, when Daniel and Pamela received news that Sanyu had broken his ankle, they personally shuttled him to the hospital, clear evidence of their close friendship. Daniel Lévy’s brother and wife – Etienne and Natacha Lévy – were also in regular contact with Sanyu, and Sanyu often visited them at their atelier in Montparnasse, chatting about their shared hobbies of gardening and cooking, as well as going up against each other in Sanyu’s invented game of “ping-pong tennis.” In December of 1965, this home became the venue for the final exhibition during the artist’s lifetime. Precious Polaroid photos from the Lévy family show that the exhibition featured Sanyu’s masterpieces. The artist left behind only the brightest of memories for his Parisian friends, as well as his Chinese compatriots in Paris, including Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Lalan, who also attended the exhibit. It was the perfect conclusion to a lifetime’s work. At the time of the exhibition, Shiy De-jinn happened also to be studying in Paris, as part of a program sponsored by the U.S State Department. Naturally, Shiy attended Sanyu’s exhibition, and in a piece commemorating Sanyu in the May 1971 issue of Hsuing Shi Art Monthly, Vol. 3, Shiy describes a scene from the exhibit, which now serves as an important historic record:

“Even in his later years, [Sanyu] eschewed loneliness. In December of 1965, a young Jewish couple, the artist’s close friends, helped organize what was perhaps both his first and last solo exhibition at their home. His paintings covered the living room and the hallways. Not many Chinese painters were there on the evening of the opening, only Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun and his wife, Pan Yuliang, and myself. Pan Yuliang had been in Paris for two or three decades by then, a veteran artist herself. She was always filled with praise for Sanyu’s work. She would say, ‘Sanyu’s paintings are constantly evolving with the times. They’re always improving. It’s remarkable.’ Among the works on display, a few were of human figures, oil paintings created by a single thick black line, resulting in images that were strange yet erotic. There is a flavour of Pop Art in those paintings. There were also Sanyu’s paintings of lotus flowers, chrysanthemums, and camellias, as well as a few sculptures of horses, painted in color. On display was also a screen, which Sanyu pulled me toward, pointing out the small-script calligraphy he had used to write out lines from Jinpingmei, detailing the love affairs between men and women.”

Following the exhibition, Nu endormi was acquired by the host of the exhibition for the family’s collection. Soon later, Sanyu’s life ended, and the atelier became the new home for Sanyu’s studio, protecting his Eve in the Garden of Eden for sixty years, preserving her warmth and charm. The market history of Sanyu’s paintings reveals that his oil paintings measuring over 100 cm have consistently sold at auction above $80,000,000 HKD. The artist’s paintings of nude women have time and again broken records at auction, becoming industry benchmarks. Whether in quality, provenance, scale, or uniqueness, Nu endormi is a true treasure, an opportunity for which Sanyu collectors around the world have been waiting for decades. Today marks the historic moment of its availability as well as another shining moment in the artist’s legacy! [1] The provenance and dimensions of Sanyu’s Nu endormi were mistakenly recorded inSanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings in 2001, on page 130. This work was acquired directly from the artist by the Lévy family in 1965. The dimensions were corrected as 50 x 100 cm in Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume Two, published in 2011, on page 118.

Note:  The provenance and dimensions of Sanyu’s Nu endormi were mistakenly recorded in Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings in 2001, on page 130. This work was acquired directly from the artist by the Lévy family in 1965. The dimensions were corrected as 50 x 100 cm in Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume Two, published in 2011, on page 118.