Female nudes were an important theme in Sanyu’s creative career. From the time he arrived in Paris in the 1920s to his final years in the 1960s, he retained a strong interest in the nude female body. Sanyu’s nudes first appeared in works on paper in the 1920s and 1930s. Working in charcoal, pencil, ink, and watercolour, he devoted himself into observing the subtleties of the female body and its variety of postures. In Paris, Sanyu was completely unrestrained and free of the obstacles impeding his counterparts in China, fellow modern pioneers who advocated painting classes with nude models. From the Académie de la Grande Chaumière to cafes in Montparnasse, he found endless inspiration everywhere, igniting his immense creativity and laying the foundation for his art and career. In the 1930s, Sanyu formally began to make oil paintings, marking another stage in his nude works. Oil painting and nudes are a classical pairing of material and subject in Western art. As a result, the artist grappled with three key issues on the female nude in oil painting: directly confronting the Western tradition, exploring the modern aspects, and integrating and improving upon Chinese and Western art in his own work. In this season’s Evening Sale, Sotheby’s is delighted to offer Sanyu’s Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois (Lot 1030). We have invited Rita Wong, author of SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Drawings and Watercolours, and SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Prints, to write an essay about the piece, sharing with us her personal experiences of researching Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois and exploring the details behind Sanyu’s nude paintings.
Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois is one of Sanyu’s classic works from the 1930s. At the time, the artist began painting nudes in oil. This work consciously initiates a dialogue with the Western tradition. A comparison of the figure in this painting with Diego Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus reveals Sanyu’s intent to reinterpret a classic, flipping Velazquez’s goddess so that the model reclines with her head on the left. Gone are the setting and narrative elements of classical painting, as the artist audaciously pared them away to a near abstract space. He added a piece of Chinese brocade, a hat tip to his study of the past and reflecting the innovative fusion of East and West.
Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois exemplifies several key traits of Sanyu’s oil paintings of nudes from the 1930s. First, he had a predilection for nudes in pink tones, with backgrounds are mostly white, semi-real spaces. The tonal atmosphere is romantic and warm, differing somewhat from the deeper colours of his later work. Second, the artist was at this time still focused on mass. He used gradations of pink on the body to express the relationship between light and shadow, achieving the real weight, thickness, and even warmth of the human body. This could be considered the extension and development of the charcoal shadows he added to his drawings on paper. Third, he used mass to convey perspective. In the nude woman’s reclining posture, the top half of her body appears nearer to the viewer while the lower half of the body is placed deeper in the painting. This expresses a perspectival relationship in space, which would become decidedly different from the flattened spaces of Sanyu’s late work.
Sanyu exaggerated and distorted the nude body in oil paintings. His nude drawings and watercolours have more obvious sexual implications. In both the observation and the bold presentation of female body, the artist expresses frank pursuit, voyeuristic longing, and humorous witticisms related to a man’s lust for a woman. However, in his oil paintings, Sanyu’s nude figures suddenly changed. If we examine all of Sanyu’s nude oil paintings from SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, the vast majority of these works present the figures from the back or the side, and the breast is usually only exposed from one side. With only a few exceptions, the pubic area is treated very modestly or not shown at all. Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois is a classic example of this. The woman in the painting is completely nude yet, curiously, there is no trace of sensuality. One might attribute this reserve to cultural propriety. If this were true, then it would hardly explain Sanyu’s works on paper, which boldly revealed intimate parts of the body. Perhaps Sanyu imagined the nude body in oil painting as an exploration into humanity’s purest and most perfect beauty. The woman in this painting rests on her left arm, supporting her head with her hand. Her right arm is purposely hidden, which highlights the presence of the right shoulder and draws the eye down toward the curve of the waist and limbs. Her exaggerated buttocks are outlined with almost perfectly round curves. Her thighs are largely hidden, and her buttocks and calves together form a heart shape that ends with the flattened, graphic sole of her foot. This conception might be better called a landscape than a nude. Her body is akin to a range of undulating hills, which creates an unexpected artistic effect. In the École de Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no shortage of masters. Modigliani took inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and with his own invention brought to life his famous figures and nudes. Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita created milky-white bodies with influences from Japanese woodcuts. Chaïm Soutine saw the beauty in ugliness. Standing alongside his talented international peers, Sanyu painted distorted nudes that seem to represent Chinese artists in Paris.
Another key trait in Sanyu’s nudes are the Chinese elements injected into composition. Throughout his career, Sanyu’s focus on creating female nudes was in fact filling in an important gap in the Chinese artistic tradition. This transformed what in the past was regarded as erotic pictures (chungong hua) and elevated the nudes into the realm of high art. Sanyu also introduced Chinese elements into the oil paintings of nudes he made in France, which reflected his innovations in this subject from Western classical art. In contrast to the spontaneous, distorted, and exaggerated modelling of the figures, the backgrounds of Sanyu’s nude oil paintings from the 1930s often feature empty spaces and finely painted carpets that, together with the figure, constitute an intense cultural collision. The model in Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois reclines on a piece of brocade, depicted using line drawing in ink on a white ground. This piece of brocade recurs multiple times in Sanyu’s oil paintings of nudes from the 1930s, so it was likely an actual object that the artist owned. In contrast to the nudes in the paintings, Sanyu presented the brocade using classic line drawing methods from Chinese ink painting. The background seems relatively figurative and the posture of the nude highlights depth. More importantly, the patterns on the brocade have an intensely Chinese character. In addition to the decorative effect, the image contains a catfish, a deer and a crane, the Three Friends of Winter (pine, bamboo, and plum), three reeds in a vase, and other auspicious symbols. Because it brought this imagery into the Paris art world in the 1930s, the work is a valuable witness to artistic and cultural exchange between East and West.
Sanyu’s nudes from the 1930s are extremely rare. Based on the artist’s catalogue raisonné, only 19 of these works have come down to us, and just seven of them have appeared on the international auction market in the last 40 years. After Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois was painted, the work was first collected by Sanyu’s early friend, dealer, and famed French author and collector Henri-Pierre Roché. In the 1960s, the work entered the collection of Jean-Claude Riedel, another one of Sanyu’s important collectors. In the 1970s, the work came into the family of the present owner. This is the first time it has come to auction in more than 80 years, and it truly presents a rare opportunity for the most discerning collectors.
Nu rose sur tissus chinois
Sanyu sketched nudes in ink and pencil for nearly a decade before he started to explore the oil medium. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the black outlining of his nudes became a signature of Sanyu’s oil paintings. While his earlier nudes of the early 1930s paid more attention to decorative details and featured finer outlines, mostly black but at times pink, bolder outlines, simpler compositions and reduced palette mark his later nudes.
There are, however, only six known paintings of nudes (catalogue raisonné numbers 7, 8, 9, 12, 258 and 260) where the outlining is absent. Without outlines, these nudes become more amorphous and abstract. In five of these the absence of detail in the nude is compensated by Chinese motifs finely drawn on the tapestry on which the nude lies. Two of these—Nu Allongé (8) and Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois (260)— were once in the Henri-Pierre Roché collection and are recorded in the renowned collector’s inventory.
Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois was, like many of the Sanyu paintings in the Roché collection, purchased by the Parisian dealer, Jean-Claude Riedel, in the 1960s which he, in turn, sold in the 1970s to a collector whose family asked me to inspect the painting in 2009. Happily surprised to see this beautiful painting still in its original frame and with the Roché collection sticker still affixed to the stretcher, I had no doubt to include it in the second volume of the catalogue raisonné of Sanyu’s oil paintings. Mr. Riedel, though diligent in his record-keeping, was not able to give me all the images of the Sanyu paintings that passed through his hands for the first volume, particularly if it was one he sold early on, such as this one. Therefore, together with the current owners, we took the painting to Mr Riedel who verified that he had indeed sold this painting to the family in the 1970s.
Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois has elements most coveted by connoiseurs of Sanyu’s paintings and most exemplary of how he was able to meld traditions from his native culture with the modernist trends of his adopted home. Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois takes a completely Western subject, such as a nude (as in 6) or a typically French marriage bouquet (as in 93), and contrasts it with Chinese elements, such as the textile elaborately decorated with Chinese animal and plant subjects. In addition, Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois can be seen as the beginning of his exploration of less figurative and more conceptual forms, which we see in his transitional works of the 1940s before settling on his later style. Removing the outline, it appears, gave Sanyu the freedom to move away from a more literal rendition of the nude to one that uses the nude as a means to express form, which in his later nudes is enhanced with bold and heavy black outlines accomplished with Chinese ink and brush, an even more subtle infusion of a uniquely Chinese feature to his oil paintings.
The importance of Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois therefore is not only in the beauty and rarity of the painting, but also as a stylistic interface between earlier and later styles that helps us understand and appreciate the thoughtfulness and artistry of paintings by Sanyu.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale