A ‘solemn grandeur’: Sanyu’s Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase

Curator Jean-Paul Desroches traces the story of an ‘exceptional’ painting by the avant-garde Chinese master, offered at auction for the first time on 26 November in Hong Kong

Often referred to as the ‘Chinese Matisse’, Sanyu was born in Sichuan, China, in 1901, and was living in Paris by 1921. Paris of the 1920s was the ground zero of the Modernist movement. 

As explained by Jean-Paul Desroches, former curator at the Guimet Museum of Asian Art, Sanyu quickly gravitated toward the vibrant, intellectual and artistic milieu of the city’s Montparnasse neighbourhood, where ‘great debates began simply over a cup of coffee’. It was here that Sanyu ‘opened up to the world’, says Desroches, and the cross-cultural pollination to which he was exposed was clearly reflected in his artwork.

In addition to the cafés of Montparnasse, Sanyu was a regular at one of the neighbourhood’s most important art institutions, La Grande Chaumière, a ‘free-spirited’ artist community whose philosophy, says Desroches, ‘was completely different from the academicism of the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts’.   

With its visible brush strokes, abstract space and simple lines, Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, painted in the 1950s, reflects Sanyu’s unique ability to blend typically Chinese artistic traditions and modern European influences to create something entirely new. Says Desroches, ‘The greatness of this painting is that it embodies the extraordinary modernity inherited from Montparnasse with the distant and poetic melancholy of a great civilisation.’

Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase will be offered on 26 November in Hong Kong as part of The Pioneers, a special chapter of the Hong Kong evening sale. This carefully curated selection of masterworks will celebrate modern and contemporary Asian artists, and avant-garde innovators in particular.