A walk through Sanyu's life: his autobiographical Branches to lead Sotheby's autumn sales

In the past few years, Sanyu’s nude and flower paintings have continuously pulled off record-smashing results at auctions, cementing his blue-chip status in the market. While the sensation seems to have cooled off a bit in the last two seasons, Sotheby’s Hong Kong is bringing one of his largest floral paintings, Branches, to its upcoming Modern Art Evening Sale.

Created in March 1963, Branches is one of his few works with a clear date and will be staging its auction debut. Estimated between HK$50 to 100 million (around US$6.3 to 12.7 million), it is a strong autobiographical masterpiece that shows Sanyu’s inner world during the 1960s.

Sanyu | Branches, Oil on board
Created in March 1963
90.5 x 119.5 cm
Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - $100,000,000

Born in Sichuan during late 19th century, Sanyu was the doted-on youngest child in an affluent family which owned one of the largest silk-weaving mills in the region. As a kid, his love for art was fully supported by his parents, who arranged for him home-school lessons with a skilled calligrapher.

Alongside a wave of young Chinese artists who took advantage of a government-sponsored work-study program, Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921. Unfettered by financial concerns, Sanyu was a carefree art student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, leading a fruitful life hanging around with Chinese and European creative luminaries.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sanyu had no intention to return to his hometown. ‘I am obliged to stay on in Paris,’ he later concluded, ‘to live the life of a bohemian.’ 

Sanyu (right) and his friend in Paris

Sanyu's Marriage Bouquet, his earlier paintings were of joyful pastel pink colour

What the blithe artist did not know then was that his life would go downhill in years to come. Despite his consistent effort to merge Eastern and Western aesthetics, he remained largely unknown to the art world. And instead of exhibitions and sales, he relied on his family’s fortune to support his practice.

In the 1930s when his brother died, his only reliable source of income had also ended. With war ravaging Europe in the years that followed, he only fell into even more dire straits. At his lowest point, he could not even afford to buy art supplies.

But even so, he never gave up his artistic quest. After immersing in Paris for some 10 years he wrote, “The misery of the lives of artists. They ought to be poor, always poor, until the end. I could abandon all that I have now. But there is a chance: My love has not died yet.”

Though miserable and poor, it was when he developed his distinctive style – creating paintings on flowers, animals and nude with expressive calligraphic strokes in strong, vivid colours, which earned him the title of ‘Chinese Matisse’ today.

In the 1960s, his direction in life seemed to be shifting. In 1961, he was invited to design the exhibition catalogue for Chinese master Zhang Daqian, who visited Paris for holding an exhibition. And in 1963, he was offered a teaching position at the National Normal University in Taiwan and to hold a solo exhibition in Taipei.

After being abroad for so many years, he felt compelled to return to his roots for the first time, and this period laid the groundwork for his final artistic achievements – including the present lot, Branches, painted in March 1963.

Considering the seasonal background and visual form of the flowers, Branches reminds of plum blossoms that bloom between winter and spring, a symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity in Chinese tradition. With its bud waiting to open, it shows Sanyu’s hope for an early spring after a long, dark winter.

Echoing the ‘one-corner’ compositions in Sothern Song landscapes, Sanyu placed the table to the side of the canvas to make the table’s presence more notable. On top of the table are the vase and flowers against a striking red wall – all of which are auspicious motifs in Chinese tradition, carrying the meaning of peace. 

All these combined Sanyu conveys an optimistic, heartening mood in Branches – reflecting his emotion when he was finally being recognized by later artists and in Chinese artistic circles after so many years in France.

Branches de prunier and Fleurs de prunier, Oil on board, 129 x 69 cm, both in the collection of Taiwan's National Museum of History

Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc, 110 x 60 cm | July 2020, Christie's Hong Kong, Sold: HK$191,620,000 (Artist's still-life record)

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, 91 x 62 cm | October 2020, Sotheby's Hong Kong, Sold: HK$187,055,000

Among Sanyu's floral paintings, there are only three other works that share the same antler-like compostition: Branches de prunier and two Fleurs de prunier – the latter two are now part of the permanent collection of Taiwan's National Museum of History, while the other remains in private hand. The present Branches is the largest of the four paintings. 

In 2020, Sanyu's floral paintings performed brilliantly at auctions:

  • Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc, 110 x 60 cm | July 2020, Christie's Hong Kong, Sold: HK$191,620,000 (around US$24.4 million - Artist's still-life record)
  • Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, 91 x 62 cm | October 2020, Sotheby's Hong Kong, Sold: HK$187,055,000 (US$24.1 million)

Whether Branches could perform equally as impressive in the upcoming auction remains to be seen.

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Auction
Date and Time: 5 October 2022 | 6pm (Hong Kong local time)