White Chrysanthemums was completed in 1929, making it one of Sanyu’s earliest dated oil paintings based on available records; as a result, this painting can also be considered a forerunner of Sanyu’s “pink period”, marking a time when his technique came into its own and when his style approached its peak. Against the pale pink background, the artist used a pure shade of creamy white to depict the flowers and their pot, so that they are a uniform colour from the petals to the leaves, and from the stems to the pot. He pushed the suppression of colours to the limit, to the extent where the whole painting relies only on the pink background, white flowers, and navy table runner to construct a sense of depth, layering and space. Sanyu used oil paint as the medium to channel the eastern philosophy ideal of “less is more”, thus fusing the east and the west in his own unique way.
Sanyu’s love of pastel colours can be connected to the artist’s positive mood at the time. In 1925, he met his classmate Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, whom he married in 1928 after dating for three years. This honeymoon period and their loving relationship may well have inspired Sanyu to paint in such tranquil and elegant pastel tones, not unlike Picasso’s “rose period” when love filled his paintings with optimism and joviality. Unlike Picasso’s preference for maroon and brick red, however, Sanyu chose to paint with a brighter and lighter pink which is purer, more romantic, and more dreamlike as well.
In the decade leading up to the 1930s, Sanyu used pinks and pastels as his foundation to create many first-class works, on themes ranging from portraits, still lifes, flora and fauna, to landscapes. Pink became one of his clear favourites, pushing him towards his career’s first peak during the “pink period”. The artist’s obsession with pink was probably also a result of contemporary trends, as Paris was also engulfed in pink from the blush on ladies’ faces to the walls in interior design. Pink was slowly becoming part of Parisian life. It can be a surprisingly neutral colour: it hints at red, carrying the energy and passion of reds, but it also contains grey and white, with those colours’ elegance and understated simplicity. Sanyu put this colour to the canvas, developing pink into a signature and vocabulary of his own, in a way that is quotidian without being common.
In this painting, the form of the flowers have been simplified, so much so that from afar the whole pot is almost reduced to simple geometric shapes – the blooming flowers minimised to circles or ovals depending on the angle they hang at, the stems standing straight, and the leaves are trimmed down to their contours only. The minimalist intent of the artist is very clear, but it would also be wrong to say this work lacks detail: there are rich layers hiding beneath the white, such as the use of paint thickness to communicate the relative positions among the flowers, where the three chrysanthemum blossoms in the foreground are painted with three layers of oil paint (from the inside to the outside), so that the petals are lavish and palpable, almost giving the texture of relief carvings. The technique of using just oil colours to create layers and depth through careful control of brushstrokes reveals Sanyu’s devotion to painting in monochromatic hues at the time, and also recalls the ‘five colours of ink’ idea of ancient Chinese scholars – despite using a single colour, variations in lightness and technique can already create depth; this application of ancient ink wash painting techniques onto canvases is also a revolution upon the tradition of realism in western oil paintings – by freeing oneself from colours, forms, and shadows, the purity of white can amplify the elegancy and clarity of the subject, cementing Sanyu’s role as a pioneer in the history of modern paintings.
Chrysanthemums are one of Sanyu’s favourite flowers, accounting for almost half of all his flower paintings among his many still lifes. The hardy and proud flower have long been a target of admiration and song by scholars and gentlemen, who personified the flower with noble qualities like austerity and modesty. Sanyu’s White Chrysanthemums uses the flowers’ unbending form to convey great vitality and strength, while contrasting that against the tasteful and refined pink background, as though he is telling viewers of his happy domestic life as well as his great personal ambitions, perfectly integrating his subjective sensations with the superlative beauty of nature.