Sanyu (1901-1966), born in Sichuan, China, showed a great aptitude for calligraphy from early age. He first attended the Shanghai Art Academy, and in 1921, inspired by the wave of study-abroad after the May 4th Movement of 1919 and supported by his brother, Sanyu decided to head for Paris to further his studies. Unlike most of his Chinese contemporaries, such as Xu Bei-hong (1895-1953) and Lin Feng-mian (1900-1991), who returned to China after finishing their studies, Sanyu remained in Paris to continue his artistic development until his death in 1966.
While most of the Chinese students enrolled in the esteemed École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, Sanyu preferred the less academic environment of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, in which he befriended Pierre Matisse (1900-1989) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966).
Sanyu was represented by the French art dealer Pierre-Henri Roché who collected a total of 111 paintings and 600 drawings by him as his most important sponsor during 1929 to 1932. Under the tutelage of Roché, Sanyu gained entrance to the the Salon des Tuileries in 1930, where he exhibited his first oil paintings. Sanyu married a young French lady Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyére in 1929. After marriage, however, Sanyu, being confident that money coming from his brother would continue, seemed quite unconcerned that they never had enough money and still spending most of his time in the cafés and hanging out with friends.
Nothing lasts forever. Due to the downturn in the business of his brother in the early 1930s, Sanyu lost his reliable source of income. In 1931, his wife divorced him, amid accusations of infidelity. Worse still, Roché terminated their relationship in 1932 because of Sanyu’s incessant demands for money and complaining.
In spite of suffering from the financial difficulties, he was just as before and still optimistic. He frequently needed to borrow money from his close friends in order to pay the utility bill and buy some art supplies. Poor and frustrated, Sanyu struggled to live as a painter in his later years. In 1966, Sanyu was found dead alone in his studio in Paris due to gas leak.
Today, the prices for the oil paintings by Sanyu continue to climb to new heights in the auction market, which is a marked variation in value of Sanyu and his works. The well-known ‘Five Nudes’, which was sold for nearly NTD 480 million in Ravenel Spring Auction HongKong in 2011, becoming the most expensive oil painting by a Chinese-born artist.
The National Museum of History in Taipei, which houses 52 of his paintings, has held four retrospective exhibitions of his works since Sanyu’s death in 1966. “Sanyu．Nostalgia．Paris (相思巴黎-常玉的藝術), ” believed to be the largest retrospective exhibition of Sanyu, will be held at the National Museum of History from March 11th to June 18th in 2017, where over than 100 pieces of his artworks will be exhibited.
by YiART assistant editor, Elsa Kang
1. Five Nudes, Sanyu. Image Courtesy Ravenel International Art Group.
2. "New Light: San Yu Paintings Conserved" at National Museum of History.
3. Two Ladies, Sanyu. Photograph taken at National Museum of History.
10 Most Expensive Paintings Sold At Auction (before December 31, 2016)：
1. Five Nudes | TWD 475,259,259 | Ravenel Auction 2011
2. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase | TWD 424,775,885 | Christie’s Auction 2016
3. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase | TWD 335,785,378 | Christie’s Auction 2015
4. Potted Chrysanthemums | TWD 331,192,320 | Sotheby’s Auction 2014
5. Goldfish | TWD 276,075,619 | Sotheby’s Auction 2013
6. Roses in a White Pitcher | TWD 233,179,966 | Poly Auction 2015
6. Pink Nude on Floral Sheet | TWD 233,179,966 | Poly Auction 2016
7. Potted Peonies | TWD 230,145,034 | Christie’s Auction 2014
8. Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière | TWD 218,580,369 | Christie’s Auction 2010
9. Woman in Red | TWD 207,179,742 | Christie’s Auction 2013
10. Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase| TWD 195,615,077 | Christie’s Auction 2012