Sanyu

Sanyu or Chang Yu was a modern Chinese-French painter. He is best known for his nude and still-life paintings that merged Chinese calligraphy techniques with Western composition. He is often described as the ‘Chinese Matisse’.

Born in 1895 in Nanchong, Sichuan to an affluent family that owned a silk factory, Sanyu developed his interest in art from a young age and practised calligraphy under Zhao Xi. He also learnt how to paint from his father, Chang Shufang.

Sanyu attended the Shanghai Art Academy and travelled to Japan in 1919. In 1921, he was part of the first wave of Chinese art students who moved to Europe under a government-sponsored programme.

Sanyu spent two years in Berlin with his close friends Xu Beihong and Jiang Biwei, before returning to Paris in 1923 and enrolling at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. The academy gave him the freedom to expand his interests in modernity.

Drawing from life, Sanyu continuously experimented with Western sketching techniques to explore human forms. He produced thousands of nude drawings. Unlike other foreign students, Sanyu decided to stay in Paris after his studies and lived a bohemian life. With great foresight, he found resemblances between Chinese calligraphy and modern Western techniques. Illustrating his favourite subjects such as nudes, flowers and animals in light, soft colours, Sanyu articulated a unique, cross-cultural aesthetic that built on his proficiency in both traditions.

Sanyu later experimented with more primitive, richly saturated colours. His Five Nudes (1950s) — depicting five standing nudes against a crimson backdrop and a saffron yellow carpet — sold for $38,848,420 at Christie’s in November 2019, making it the most expensive work by the artist ever sold at auction.

Throughout his career, Sanyu was championed by the art dealer Henri-Pierre Roché and composer Johan Franco. Beyond Europe, his admirers included the poet Xu Zhimo, writer Shao Xunmei, photographer Robert Frank, and artist Zhang Daqian. Nonetheless, his artistic career, which began with prodigious promise, had little commercial return. As the uncertainties of expatriate life and poverty weighed on him, Sanyu’s works in his late period employed intense, melancholy colours and depicted solitary, wandering animals.

Two years before his death from a gas leak in his Paris apartment, Sanyu sent over 40 paintings to Taiwan after receiving an invitation to teach and hold an exhibition at Taiwan Normal University. Unfortunately, he never made his trip to Asia, and these paintings have remained in the inventory of the National Museum of History, Taipei ever since. Attaining recognition posthumously, an extensive retrospective of Sanyu was hosted at the Guimet Museum in Paris in 2004.


SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc (White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Femme nue sur un tapis (Nude on Tapestry)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Chrysanthèmes roses dans une corbeille (Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Potted Chrysanthemums

SANYU (CHANG YU, CHINA, 1901-1966)

CHRYSANTHÈ MES DANS UN VASE EN VERRE (CHRYSANTHEMUMS IN A GLASS VASE)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Vase de lys sur fond marron (Vase of Lilies with Red Ground)

Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)

Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums)

Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)

Pot de pivoines (Potted Peonies)

SANYU (CHANG YU, FRANCE/CHINA, 1895-1966)

Bouquet de Marguerites (Bouquet of Marguerites)

Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)

Roses in a White Vase (Bouquet de roses dans un vase blanc)

SANYU (CHANG YU, CHINESE, 1901-1966)

Vase de Chrysanthè mes sur une table jaune (Vase of Chrysanthemums on a Yellow Table)

SANYU (1901-1966)

Nature morte aux fruits

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Chrysanthèmes blanches (White Chrysanthemums)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Rooster and Serpent

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895–1966)

Kitten Clambering up a Chair; & Nude (double-sided)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895–1966)

Vase blanc, fleurs blanches, fond rose (White Pot, White Flowers, Pink Background)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1901-1966)

Léopard endormi (Sleeping Leopard)

SANYU (CHANG YU, CHINA, 1901-1966)

Nu Debout (Standing Nude)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Lectrice à la jupe jaune (Reader in a Yellow Skirt)