A group of works on paper, directly from the sale of all of Sanyu's possessions after his death in 1966, will also go under the hammer, with estimates ranging from €20,000 to €30,000, on June 2, 2022 at Aguttes.
Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, 1926
Oil on canvas, signed and dated upper right
27.2 x 19 cm
Henri-Pierre Roché Collection, Paris
Collection Alexandre Netsa - Mamonoff / Marynen (acquired before 1940)
Private collection, Belgium (by transmission of precedents in 2003)
"We are presenting two touching paintings for sale on the 2nd of June. These are the first oil paintings by Sanyu and most likely the ones that drew the attention of the patron Henri-Pierre Roché to the talented artist. I am delighted with this discovery which allows us to advance our knowledge of the painter. I would like to thank the vendor for his confidence in this sale, which gives us another opportunity to present little-known works by Sanyu to passionate collectors.
Charlotte Aguttes-Reynier, expert
Two of Sanyu's earliest oil paintings from 1926 and 1927
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 are now in the public eye, having remained in private hands for over 80 years.
La théière jaune, 1927
Oil on canvas, signed upper right, dated on the back
24 x 14 cm
Alexandre Netsa - Mamonoff / Marynen Collection (acquired before 1940)
Private collection, Belgium (by transmission of precedents in 2003)
The discovery of these two paintings, dated by the artist - 1926 for one and 1927 for the other - provides a very interesting advance in our knowledge of Sanyu's work. Indeed, if the Chinese artist's favourite field has always been ink or watercolour on paper, his painted work is rare and comes 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 thus appears in 1926 as a key work in the history of this painter.
By depicting each subject in close-up on a small-format canvas, Sanyu offers a very personal angle of approach. This intimate vision forces the viewer's eye to focus on the chosen object: Le Maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval or La théière jaune. The decor and backgrounds are secondary, and only the central parts of the compositions matter.
Educated at home, Sanyu took courses in calligraphy with Zhao Xi (1866-1948) and in painting with his father, an animal painter, before also studying at the University of Shanghai. Finally, in France, he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and gradually emancipated himself from traditional Chinese art. Struck by the avant-garde and creative emulation of painters of all origins that he met at the Coupole or on the benches of the academies, he used his great mastery of calligraphy to overturn traditional Chinese codes and explore forms and colours.
Sanyu (Nanchong, Sichuan, 1895 - Paris, 1966), a link between East and West
Matisse-like flat tints and no background
In Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval and La théière jaune, the absence of a background combined with a linear perspective recalls the artist's Chinese origins. Traditionally, in Asia, artists do not depict figures and backgrounds in Chinese ink painting, and favour a lateral representation. In La théière jaune, the painter uses a bird's-eye view, and we can easily imagine the continuity of the table, on which the teapot rests. Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, follows a 2D dimension which is reminiscent of the traditional arrangement of elements painted on scrolls in Asia.
"Sanyu should have taught in China, he was very bold and followed his impulses."
Zao Wou Ki in Sanyu, l'écriture du corps, Musée des arts asiatiques Guimet, 2004, 16 June-13 September in cat exp.
A spontaneous and secure touch
The technique of these two works also blends European and Asian influences: while Sanyu retained from the West the oil painting he discovered during his apprenticeship at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, he retained from his training in China the confident gesture.
Subjects from both Eastern and Western iconography
Although the theme of animals is regularly found in Sanyu's body of work, horses remain his favourite animal subjects. These equines, which are highly symbolic in China and very much represented in traditional painting, also evoke the paintings of his father, a painter specialising in the representation of horses and lions. In Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, Sanyu prefers to immortalise a horse dressed in a neat harness, in a worked and disciplined pose. The horse seems almost more individualized than the rider, whose silhouette fades behind the form. With this horse ridden by the ringmaster, nicknamed Monsieur Loyal, the artist offers us a representation of the circus. A popular subject in Western painting, it evokes memories of Sanyu's childhood, during which he observed the travelling circus from Bejing.
In La théière jaune, the painter does not fail to draw inspiration from his country of origin either. In China, tea has a sacred aspect that is inseparable from the Middle Kingdom. Its ritual remains codified in China, its birthplace, but popularised throughout the world, this drink was already universal at the time.
Colour, one of the influences of the Paris of the Roaring Twenties
Influenced by the Roaring Twenties and the lively character of Paris at that time, Sanyu chose to use rather traditional colours for his first oil paintings.
In Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval, the pinkish touch on the rider's cheeks is characteristic of the artist's style. While green and blue mingle with black and brown in the equestrian portrait, the second composition features a teapot and cup in bright yellow against the pink background.
"European painting is like a rich feast where there are roasts, fried foods, all sorts of meats of various shapes and colours. As for my paintings, if you like, they are vegetables and fruits, salads too, which can serve to give you a break from your usual taste in painting."
Sanyu interviewed by Pierre Joffroy, Le Parisien Libéré - 1946
Henri-Pierre Roché (Paris, 1879 - Sèvres, 1959), distinguished collector and main patron of Sanyu
The back of each of the two paintings bears the monogram of Henri-Pierre Roché, a major collector and patron of the arts in the early 20th century.
Sanyu was spotted by this great collector at the end of the 1920s, probably because of his innovative style, thanks to the characteristic outline that surrounds a spontaneous and totally controlled line.
This encounter gave the painter valuable support at a time when he was experiencing financial difficulties - which were exacerbated by the death of his brother, the bankruptcy of the family business and his divorce in 1931.
La théière jaune (The Yellow Teapot) and Le maître de piste, Monsieur Loyal, à cheval (The Ringmaster, Mr Loyal, on Horseback) bear witness to the relationship between the collector and the artist, a relationship that was to foster the artistic blossoming of the young Chinese painter in Paris.
Indeed, this period, the most prolific for the artist, saw oil painting take pride of place in his work, and other techniques such as engraving develop. In 1932, Henri-Pierre Roché already had 111 oil paintings and 600 drawings by Sanyu in his collection. The two men were unable to come to an agreement financially and soon put an end to their collaboration.
The author of two novels adapted for the cinema by François Truffaut, Jules et Jim and Deux Anglaises et le continent, Roché became posthumously famous thanks to these two adaptations. An inquisitive and avant-garde spirit, he devoted a large part of his life to collecting, and endeavoured to promote little-known artists among his inner circle. This circle included well-informed collectors such as Gertrude Stein and John Quinn. In 1957, in his Confessions of a Collector, he wrote: "Influenced by the success of Picasso and 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 (verging on surrealism); Papazoff, painter and writer."
The collector kept most of his acquisitions and inventoried them three years before his death in 1956. This inventory attests to the pioneering eye of this great collector and dealer, who spotted this prodigy, now considered one of the leaders of modern Chinese art, before anyone else.
For more than 10 years, Charlotte Aguttes-Reynier and her team have been working to bring to light the painters of Asia, a little-known part of art history. These artists, who were forgotten for a time, are arousing a major revival of curiosity among art lovers. Masterful bids rewarded this work, which also enriched the history of art: nearly 18.5 million euros including tax for four paintings by the Chinese artist Sanyu. In fact, three works by the artist fetched 10 million euros in 2015, while another painting fetched 8.5 million euros in 2017.
The Habart Collection. Michel Habart, a writer and collector