Hailed as "the Chinese Matisse", Sanyu was a radical artist who fused the traditions of East and West like no one else really before him. Over the course of his career, his name became synonymous with paintings of female nudes, an underexplored subject in the Chinese painting tradition. Today, he is recognized as an important founding figure in the development of modern Chinese art.
Born in 1901 in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, Sanyu was encouraged to indulge his love of art from an early age and was given private tuition in calligraphy. He immigrated to Paris in the early 1920s at the age of 19, soon becoming a fixture on the bohemian Montparnasse scene. In Paris, he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he first came across the custom of sketching and painting nudes.
Alongside still lifes with flowers, female nudes were the subject Sanyu returned to most throughout his career. These works exhibit an almost unmatched beauty, full of harmony. Since human subjects rarely appeared as prominent subjects within most traditional Chinese paintings, Sanyu broke new ground by boldly placing the female nude at the centre of his artistic output. His works combined Western influences with a deep understanding of Chinese painting, exerting an important influence on the development of modern Chinese art that served to bridge past and future.
During his lifetime, Sanyu went largely unrecognized and was effectively destitute upon his death in Paris in 1966. However, the artist has become an auction sensation in the past year. His nude Quatre Nus, featuring reclining female figures in the his distinctively saturated style, recently sold for over $33.3 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Leading Sotheby's first major sale in Hong Kong since the coronavirus pandemic, it became the evening's most expensive lot, confirming the artist's stature among Asian collectors, whose spending power now significantly shapes the global auction market.
In October 2019, another nude titled Nu fetched just under $25 million at a Sotheby's sale; a month later, Five Nudes went under the hammer at Christie's for almost $39 million, setting a new auction record for his work. Between 2000 and 2019, the price of Sanyu's work jumped by more than 1,100%, according to the Artprice database.
Let's take a look at the most expensive Sanyu nudes sold in auction.
Featured image: Sanyu - Quatre Nus (detail), 1950s. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Sanyu’s masterpiece and one of the greatest Chinese works of art of the 20th century, Five Nudes is special for many reasons - this is the largest painting he ever did of female nudes and boasting a greater number of figures than any other painting he produced. It features five curvaceous women with their creamy white skin standing out in bold contrast against the plum and saffron hues of the floor and background.
Created in the 1950s and regarded as one of the artist’s finest, the work calls Matisse's Dance and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to mind due to its rich color palette and the use of line to suggest movement. As Eric Chang, Deputy Chairman of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong pointed out, "each of the figures’ upper bodies seems at rest, their lower halves seem to perhaps be dancing or somehow on the move."
On the other hand, Sanyu's sinuous black lines, that he uses to trace his subjects' feature, can be described as calligraphic, derived from Chinese line drawing. Adopting Chinese concepts regarding the use of line in shaping his forms, the artist attempted to “simplify, and then further simplify” his expressive lines, arriving at his unusual and uniquely beautiful style.
The work was sold on November 23rd, 2019 at Christie's Hong Kong during their 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $33,975,261.
Featured image: Sanyu - Five Nudes, 1950s. Signed 'Sanyu' and signed in Chinese (lower right). Oil on masonite; 120 x 172 cm. (47 1/4 x 67 3/4 in). Courtesy Christie's.
Created in the 1950s, Quatre nus may be the most seductive of Sanyu’s nudes and a work that would surely perpetuate his mythos. A wonderfully vibrant image, it features four nude women in repose, each with a different dace and posture, sunbathing on a verdant lawn in summer. The models in the painting are tall, slender, and delicately curved and their overlapping bodies, which are reminiscent of the sweeping mountain ranges of Chinese landscape paintings, are further accentuated by the rich emerald background.
The women's bodies are outlined in simple, freehand lines, expressing the spirit of Chinese landscape painting as well as Sanyu's admiration and appreciation for the female figure. Fusing Eastern and Western concepts of natural beauty, the artist innovated a new stage in modern paintings of the female nude and brought it back to nature, melding the two into one. While the simplified narrative space reflects an Eastern freehand sensibility, the layered arrangement of colors evokes Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionism.
The work was sold on July 8th, 2020 at Sotheby's Hong Kong for during their Modern Art Evening Sale for $33,318,127.
Featured image: Sanyu - Quatre Nus, 1950s. Oil on masonite, 100 by 122 cm; 39 3/8 by 48 in. Courtesy Sotheby's.
Sanyu's final masterpiece, Nu is the ultimate expression of his artistic vision. The largest extant painting of a female nude by Sanyu, it features a nude prostrate against a white, abstract background with legs bent and folded in an L shape. Due to a highly unusual bottom-up perspective, the model's lower body and genitals are exaggerated, toying with discomfort in the viewer’s gaze. Once again, the artist transforms the nude into something akin to a modernist version of a traditional Asian landscape painting. The painting’s reverse side bears a rare handwritten note by Sanyu that reads:
Had I not been in poverty and diligently painting at the time, I would have completed the painting and reached my maturity earlier. Alas! As I finish and regard this work, it is April 1965.
Contour lines are created through stark contrasts and saturated tones, manifesting the expressiveness of the human body to the fullest. In this period, the artist adopted more complex poses for his models, often crossing and bending their limbs. This may be understood as a distillation of Sanyu’s inner world, which became increasingly tumultuous as he lived through the vicissitudes of several decades. The model is depicted against a blank background which evokes the unpainted space in ink painting and minimalist abstraction. A true masterpiece, the work is a culmination of Sanyu's exploration and development of the nude genre.
The work was sold on October 5th, 2019 at Sotheby's Hong Kong during their Modern Art Evening Sale for $25,531,813.
Featured image: Sanyu - Nu, 1965. Signed in Chinese and French; signed in French, dated 4.1965 and inscribed in Chinese on the reverse. Oil on masonite, 122.5 by 135 cm; 48 1/4 by 53 1/8 in. Courtesy Sotheby's.