SANYU (1895-1966)

Lot 203
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Estimation :
475000 - 600000 EUR
Result with fees
Result : 450 200EUR
SANYU (1895-1966)

The ringmaster, Mr Loyal, on his horse, 1926

Oil on canvas, signed and dated upper right

27.2 x 19 cm - 10 3/4 x 7 1/2 in


Collection Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris

Collection Alexandre Netsa - Mamonoff / Marynen (avant 1940)

Collection privée, Belgique (par descendance des précédents entre 1991 et 2003)


This work will be included in the forthcoming edition of Sanyu catalogue raisonné compiled by Rita Wong, The Li Ching Foundation.


Born into a wealthy family in Sichuan province, Sanyu grew up in an environment that was conducive to the development of his artistic talents and the birth of his passion. Encouraged by his father, an animal painter, he learns calligraphy and Chinese painting at a very young age, disciplines that will have a strong influence on his work. Sanyu came to France and settled in Montparnasse around 1923. The young painter chose to attend the Académie de la Grande Chaumière rather than an overly academic education. Along with Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, he was one of the first generation of Chinese artists trained in Paris. While the latter later returned to China, Sanyu preferred to continue to concentrate on an even more advanced artistic research and, sensitive to the bubbling artistic emulation of these years, he chose to settle in France. The Roaring Twenties attracted many artists from around the world to Paris: the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, the Russian Marc Chagall, the Polish Moses Kisling, the Japanese Tsuguharu Foujita... The School of Paris concentrated all the new artistic ideas of the time. The richness of this atmosphere is fertile: Sanyu spends a lot of time in the cafés of the Montparnasse district, such as the Coupole or the Dome. He constantly sketched the regulars around him, sometimes directly on the paper tablecloths of the café. He rubs shoulders with Modigliani, Man Ray, Brancusi, Matisse and Picasso. While some, such as Foujita, who was a worker but also a socialite, were careful to promote their work, Sanyu, who was more discreet, was more concerned with the search for excellence in technique, and with the transcription of the simplicity of feelings through ever purer and clearer lines. Sanyu’s work attests to his attachment to his native country. In particular, he shows his admiration for Ba Da Shan Ren, a 17th century Chinese artist (1625-1705), whose work conveys the sense of isolation and loneliness he felt at the end of the Qing dynasty and the birth of the Ming dynasty. Nearly three centuries later, Sanyu, now living in Paris, also feels the distance from his roots and, quite naturally, draws inspiration from his illustrious predecessor. In the works of Ba Da Shan Ren and then in those of Sanyu, we are often impressed by these small animals, or birds, which seem lost in a very vast space, an impression amplified by the violent contrast, rendered thanks to the proportion of the lines. The extreme simplification of these lines focuses the attention of the public on the powerful inner feeling that emerges from the works, pride, solitude, joy or sadness. From the entirety of Sanyu’s work, a few major themes emerge: animals, flowers, and the nude. While the nude on a live model remained a delicate subject in China at the beginning of the 20th century, the artistic freedom that reigned in Paris opened new perspectives for the artist.

He excelled on paper and flourished through a panoply of talented sketches. Following the precepts received in his childhood, they emphasize the “subjective use of features to express the appearance and spirit of the subject” instead of simply reproducing the shape of the subject. He renders in a few precise and skilful strokes, the soul of the subject presented, and that beyond its simple appearance. The recurrent presence of the single eye, like a wink reminding us of this opening of the subject to the world, sums up the talent of the artist. If the artist’s first watercolors reveal a delicate combination of line and figure modeling, his inks evoke the purity of Chinese calligraphy. It is thanks to the transition to the oil technique that Sanyu will finally assert his personal style. The artist seems to refuse any idea of real perspective in his paintings. However, through the effects of a luminous touch and the delicate play of shades with ivory tones, the defender of Picasso manages in his own way to suggest volume in a very original way.



The two oil paintings for sale, Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, and La théière jaune, acquired during the artist’s lifetime by a Russian collector living in Belgium, have been stored in the safe of his heir for more than 30 years, and are revealed today for the first time.

The artist went to Paris in 1920 and decided to settle there: he painted these two pictures only a few years after his arrival in France. They appear today to the general public, after having remained in private hands for over 80 years. The discovery of these two paintings, dated by the artist - 1926 for one, and 1927 for the other - allows a very interesting advance in the knowledge of Sanyu’s work. Indeed, if the Chinese artist’s favorite field has always been ink or watercolor on paper, his painted work is rare and later. What is known to date points to 1929, the date of Sanyu’s meeting with Henri-Pierre Roché, as the starting point for his work in oil. Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval (The Ringmaster, Mr. Loyal, on Horseback) thus appears in 1926 as a key work in the history of this painter. The chromatic range where the color is vibrant but also this characteristic ring surrounding a spontaneous line also charmed one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century, Henri-Pierre Roché. Author of two novels adapted for the cinema by François Truffaut, Jules et Jim and Deux Anglaises et le continent, Roché devoted a large part of his life to collecting. An inquisitive and avantgarde spirit, he promoted little-known artists to his inner circle, which included such well-informed collectors as Gertrude Stein and John Quinn. He wrote in 1957 in his Confessions of a Collector: « Influenced by the success of Picasso, Marie-Laurencin, I began to support beginners: Pruna [his dancers] now in a monastery in Spain, some of whose women are of a penetrating grace; Ebihara, Japanese with blue and white snowscapes; Sanyu, Chinese, poetic (his Horse Woman); Marembert (bordering on surrealism); Papazoff, painter and writer. » 1

From his meeting with Sanyu in December 1929, a friendship but also a relationship of patron follows. This period was the most productive for the artist and in 1932, Roché already had 111 oil paintings and 600 drawings of the artist in his personal collection. Encouraged by Roché, Sanyu received financial assistance to offset his recent financial difficulties following the death of his brother, who had been sending him a pension. The quarrels over money eventually put an end to the relationship between the two friends. The two works presented for sale are part of a group of works acquired by Roché at this time, on which he systematically affixed his monogram by hand. They underline the fruitful nature of the relationship that united the two men and allowed the young Chinese painter to flourish in Paris.

Biographical notes

This work will be included in the forthcoming edition of Sanyu's catalogue raisonné compiled by the Li Ching Foundation.

1895 Sanyu was born in a province of Sichuan 1919 Journey to Japan 1921 Spent time in Paris before moving to Berlin for two years 1923 Back in Paris, became part of the first generation of Chinese artists to settle in France 1925 First exhibition at the Salon d’Automne (and again in 1928,1946) 1929 Met Henri-Pierre Roché 1930 First exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries (then again in 1932, 1936,1937) 1932 Exhibition at the J.H. de Bois Gallery in Haarlem at Johan Franco’s initiative First exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants (also in 1938, 1942-1946, 1948, 1954 and 1956) 1933 First exhibition at the Kuntzaal van Lier Gallery in Amsterdam at Johan Franco’s initiative (and again in 1934) Participation in the «Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art» at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1948 Arrival of the second wave of Chinese artists in Paris, including Zao Wou-Ki 1948 Lived in New York and met Robert Frank, remaining there for two years 1963 While visiting France, Huang Jilu, then Minister of Education of Taiwan, Republic of China, offered Sanyu a teaching post at Taiwan University and staged a retrospective in Taipei 1964 42 paintings were sent to the National History Museum of Taipei 1965 Last personal exhibition during his lifetime at the house of his friends and neighbours Etienne and Natacha Levy, Rue du Moulin Vert, Paris 1966 Sanyu died in his Paris studio 1978 Hommage à Sanyu, Galerie jean-Claude Riedel, Paris 1984 Second exhibition in Paris of works on paper in Galerie d’Orient, rue des Grands Augustins 1995 Sanyu, National Museum of history, Taipei, Taïwan 2004 Sanyu, l’écriture du corps, Musée Guimet, Paris La dona, Metamorfosi de la modernitat, Barcelone 2011 Artistes chinois à Paris, Musée Cernuschi, Paris 2017 Paintings and Drawings, Sanyu. National Museum of History, Taipei, Taïwan 2018 An intimate View: Sanyu’s Small Masterpieces Taipei, Taïwan..

Alexandre Netsa-Mamonoff/Marynen’s Collection

Alexandre Netsa-Mamonovas (1912-1991) was a Russian immigrant living in Belgium. He married in 1935 Georgette Marynen (1912- 2003), who became my godmother. They have no direct descendants. He first worked as a tour guide, translating the tours in museums into Russian. Afterwards, he acquired a certain knowledge of art and began to spot certain talents in Paris under the guidance of his friend Bénédict L Goldschmidt (1905-1972), a rich banker and art collector. It was during this period that Alexandre Netsa-Mamonoff bought «small» paintings such as a Foujita, a Sanyu, a Max Ernst, a Marie Laurencin, a Van Gogh,... Most of his purchases proved to be good choices. Alexandre, Georgette, my father Alfred, Alla (who had married my father in the first marriage and Benedict in the second marriage) and Benedict were good friends and knew each other before the Second World War. They often feasted together. At the death of his friend, Alla SafievaGoldshmidt in 1989, the extraordinary collection of the couple Alla and Bénédict Goldschmidt is bequeathed to the Museum of Ixelles (Belgium). An exhibition, placed under the high patronage of Their Majesties King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola, was then organized by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (September 21 - December 16, 1990). This legacy will enhance the collections of the Museum of Modern Art with prestigious names such as Picasso, Braque, Miro, Chagall, Ensor, Dali, Chirico, Spilliaert... The couple Mamonoff resold their paintings every time they needed to «bail out». I remember that they had the Sanyu appraised at the end of the 70s but its value was very low at the time. From then on, in order not to have these ‘decorative’ paintings clutter up their bank vault, they placed them on their mantelpiece... I received them after Alexandre’s death in 1991, but before my godmother’s (Georgette). She did not give them any particular importance at that time.  As for the Mamonoff-Marynen couple, they came to live in our house where I lived with my father in the 1980s (one floor was dedicated to them).

Extract from a discussion with Georgette Mamonoff-Marynen’s godson, who has kept the two small paintings of Sanyu, in his safe in Belgium since the death of Alexandre Netsa (1991)

Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval is a perfect example of the artist’s ability to combine these two distinct cultures and capture strong elements in each. The small format used here allows for an intimate view. By focusing on the subject, Sanyu offers a very personal approach, the viewer’s eye cannot be diverted from the center of the composition. No element disturbs the reading. The absence of a background combined with a linear perspective reflects the traditional teachings the artist received. In Chinese ink painting, figures and backgrounds are traditionally not depicted, favoring a lateral representation. Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, on horseback follows this 2D dimension, which is reminiscent of kakemonos. From his training in China, he also retains the assured gestures - the use of silk or paper does not allow for repentance. The touch here is spontaneous and sure. From the West, he experimented with oil painting, discovered during his apprenticeship at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, as well as some work on perspective. Marked by the Roaring Twenties and the ebullience of Paris, Sanyu approaches a colorful palette where green and blue mingle with black and brown. He chooses an evocative subject in each of these two cultures. If the theme of animals is regularly found in his body of work, horses remain a favorite. Loaded with a strong symbolism in China where they are represented in traditional painting, they also remind him of the painting of his father, an animal painter specialized in the representation of horses and lions.

In Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, Sanyu chooses to immortalize the animal dressed in a harness, in a worked and disciplined pose, mounted by the ringmaster, nicknamed Monsieur Loyal. He illustrates here a scene of the circus, a subject appreciated in Western painting, which also evokes memories of his childhood when he discovered the traveling circus coming from Bejing. The horse seems almost more individualized than the rider, whose silhouette fades behind the form. The rider is disguised to be seen by all and especially from afar, the costume is given pride of place. From this face which seems tiny, hidden between the width of the black garment and the large black top hat, only the large pinkish touch blushing the cheeks of the ringmaster attracts our attention. If this detail is unusual here, it fits very naturally into Sanyu’s work, a simple stylistic transposition of his numerous watercolor portraits. 

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