SANYU (1895-1966)
SANYU (1895-1966)
SANYU (1895-1966)
SANYU (1895-1966)
3 More
SANYU (1895-1966)

Vase de fleurs (Vase of Flowers)

SANYU (1895-1966)
Vase de fleurs (Vase of Flowers)
signed in Chinese, signed and dated 'SANYU 1931' (lower left)
oil on canvas
80.9 x 65 cm.(31 7/8 x 25 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1931
Henri-Pierre Roche, Paris
Hotel Drouot Paris, 23 November 1984, lot 56
Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris (acquired at the above sale)
Private collection, USA (acquired in the 1980s)
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, YAGEO Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001 (illustrated, plate 91, p. 199).
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume II, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011 (illustrated, plate 91, p. 126).
Sale Room Notice
Please note the provenance for Lot 3 is updated. Please refer to for the correct information.

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Lot Essay

Painted in the 1930s, Vase de fleurs demonstrates Sanyu’s flair for combining simple, well-chosen colours with cleverly woven forms and spaces in his painting, and it is a classic example of how the artist successfully used Western media to create poetic works that evoke Eastern conceptions. In Vase de fleurs, the treatment of empty space transposes the notion in Chinese poetry and philosophy that ‘the meaning lies just beyond the reach of the words’ to painting, extending it to ’the meaning lies just beyond the brushstrokes’. It infuses a rich imagination into the subject of still-life, which differs in nature from the ideas of Western post-impressionist and cubist paintings at the time. In the late 1920s, Sanyu created several copper plate etchings and developed an appreciation for their simplicity of line. He took inspiration from the line and the illumination of space through yin and yang in copper plate etching and incorporated them into his oil work. This innovative painting technique is perfectly manifested in the present work. Vase de fleurs features a simplified style, employing areas of colour in black, white and pink. In Chinese painting, inky black and pure white are considered vehicles for expressing the pure, primitive source of nature. In traditional ink painting, ‘the five colours of ink’ refers to the subtle monochromatic shadings of ink and variations in brushstrokes, and the unlimited effects and imaginative spaces that they evoke against a white backdrop. Sanyu applied this concept to single-colour oil paints, unearthing the boundless potential of the texture of the pigments. Here, Sanyu uses rough brushstrokes to apply black oils on a white canvas, and his impeccable brushwork is revealed through the texture of oil paint. The cascade of ink-coloured strokes instill momentum in the still-life painting. It brings to mind Sanyu’s solid foundation in Chinese calligraphy and painting, as he studied calligraphy during his youth with Zhao Xi (1867-1948), calligrapher in the late Qing dynasty to the early Republican period. The present work exemplifies the way Sanyu’s brushwork captures the tension of the line that is a distinctive quality of Chinese calligraphy.

Black, for the Chinese, often connotes religious transcendence and the ennoblement of life, while white symbolises purity and a transformation of consciousness. Apart from the ink spreading freely in the background, Sanyu uses inky black to depict the elegant peony leaves in this painting, and he juxtaposes with them the tall, white porcelain-like vase that is rendered in gentle brushstrokes in light pink. These give the composition its clean, succinct simplicity and set off the subject in a flowing and approachable manner. The composition of Vase de fleurs illustrates the Chinese aesthetic notion that 'form and emptiness give rise to each other; spaces unpainted by the artist have a miraculous effect', and the Western surrealist René Magritte’s creation of negative space. With the slow drying quality of oil paint, it creates in the painting an intricate connection between form and emptiness that moves beyond ink painting. The artist works on the still moist layers of paint, applying and scraping coats of paint with evenly controlled but still relaxed gestures. His original scraping technique is used to delineate the layering of flowers, where the white lines of 'emptiness' morph into a tangible form on pink colour blocks, endowing the peonies with a relief-like texture. Sanyu’s brushwork is reminiscent of seal carving in that it utilises emptiness to depict the image of blooming peonies—it hints at spatial dimensions in a two-dimensional composition, creating a sense of front-to-back depth even without the one-point perspective. In Vase de fleurs, Sanyu also deliberately avoids perfect alignment at the edges of the white oils around the flowers, for a slight dislocation that let them achieve their own natural, three-dimensional quality. Through its simplified portrayal of a single still-life subject, Sanyu’s painting perfectly amalgamates the Western concept of negative space with the xushi (intangible and tangible) and the spatial imagination in Chinese art.

In the 1920s, Sanyu moved to Montparnasse in Paris. Among the select group of artists known as the Paris school, Sanyu was seen, along with Japan’s Tsugouharu Foujita, as a representative of Eastern art. While the two had broad differences in style and outlook, they did have in common the use of ink-brush techniques in their work. Given Sanyu’s varied brushwork, and the ambience of the ink medium, his work often displayed the poetic lyricism of Chinese calligraphy and its succinct yet soft, full lines; Foujita employed a more rational style, treating his subjects in a realistic fashion and continuing the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition of detailed figurative styles and flat picture spaces. In the 1930s, Sanyu achieved further breakthrough in his treatment of the relationship between the lines of colour blocks and space—the lines of colour blocks do not only depict objects in a painting, but they hint at a reflection on the sense of space. In Vase de fleurs, white is brushed on the left and right sides of the composition, and the uneven margins brighten up the ambiguous space in the backdrop. Sanyu also extends the thick black line at the bottom beyond the frame of the painting. In using positive and negative colour blocks to render front and back depth, he successfully employed the Eastern aesthetics of void to conjure up the Western concept of space. With simple colours and rich lines, Sanyu creates a resonant realm in the painting. Juxtaposing forms and spaces in monochrome, Sanyu projects a relationship between the three elements of colour, the still-life subject, and space. As the Chinese poet Li Bai wrote in his poem Drinking Alone by Moonlight, 'I raise my cup toward the bright moon, inviting it to join me. It, my shadow, and I make three.' These words evoke the three roles that emerge in the poem in the form of the moon, the poet’s shadow, and the poet. Sanyu’s still-life is an exploration of, and a dialogue with, the essence of the natural world. The artist projects his feeling into a genuine act of creation, in a work of concise simplicity and pure, touching beauty.

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