Sanyu’s Last Nude Painting Sells for Record-Breaking HK$198m

Sanyu, a Chinese-French painter, is considered a legend in Asian art and a luminary in Western art history. His last nude painting - which represents the zenith of the artist’s creation - was sold last night at Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale for HK$198m, setting a new auction record for Sanyu. Two other paintings by Sanyu also realised the third and fourth highest prices of the sale.

New auction record for Sanyu

Nu was hammered down at HK$172m


Sanyu (1895-1966) was hailed as ‘the Chinese Matisse’. Sanyu’s paintings began with floral motifs and culminated with female nudes. In the 1920s, he went to the city with fellow Chinese art students – among them Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu and Xu Beihong. Together they wrote a glorious chapter for Chinese émigré artists in France. By the 1940s and 1950s, Sanyu had become revered in Paris, by Wu Guanzhong, Zhang Daqian, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Teh-Chun, among others. He remained a purist through to old age in the 1960s, disregarding critical judgement as he focused on the final chapter of his career, in which the present nude painting was created.

On 17 December 1965, Sanyu mounted his last solo exhibition, hosted by close friends Mr. and Mrs. Lévy at their family residence on Rue du Moulin Vert. This painting was the cover image of the invitation to the exhibition. The opening was attended by a group that included Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Shiy De-Jinn. Unfortunately, Sanyu died from an accident in his Paris apartment only a few months after the exhibition, making Nu, which was created in April 1965, his final masterpiece.

This painting was also chosen as the poster image for Hommage à Sanyu, an exhibition organised by the legendary dealer and collector Jean-Claude Riedel in his gallery in 1977. From the 1990s to the present, Nu has been illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings. As one of the largest paintings of a female nude by Sanyu, Nu is much more ambitious than any of the works in the National Museum of History collection in Taipei, which also houses the eponymous oil sketch for the work. Due to its singular importance, Nu was the highlight of the major 2004 exhibition Sanyu: l’ecriture du corps at the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Nu was featured on the cover of the invitation for San-Yu Exhibition at Levy Residence in 1965

Sanyu’s nudes from the 1950s and 1960s began to show a radical new style, with painting on a monumental scale and the depiction of the female body in unconventional ways. Nu presents a surprising vision of a nude prostrate against a white, abstract background, her legs bent and folded in an L shape. Sanyu adopts a highly unusual a bottom-up perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.

The bidding of Nu started at HK$100m and elicited the interest of three telephone bidders and a lady in the room. The painting was hammered down at HK$172m (US$21.9m) and sold for HK$198m (US$25.2m) after premium, setting a new auction record for Sanyu. It was sold to the telephone bidder represented by Jen Hua, Deputy Chairman of Asia, with a paddle no. L0083.

Jen Hua (the one on the phone), Deputy Chairman of Asia

Nu smashed the previous auction record set by Five Nudes, which was sold for HK$128m in 2011 at Ravenel Auction Hong Kong.

Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois is a nude painting from Sanyu’s early period

Patti Wong, Chairman, Asia

Another Sanyu’s nude painting, which came from the artist’s early period, was also offered at the sale. It realised the third highest price of the sale after it was hammered down at HK$42m and sold for HK$49.9m to Patti Wong, Chairman, Asia, on behalf of her telephone client.

Female nudes were an important theme in Sanyu’s creative career, from the time he arrived in Paris in the 1920s to his final years in the 1960s. Yet, Sanyu’s style has drastically evolved from the present one which was created in the 1930s to those created in his final year, including the record-breaking Nu.

Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois exemplifies several key traits of Sanyu’s oil paintings of nudes from the 1930s. First, he had a predilection for nudes in pink tones, with backgrounds are mostly white, semi-real spaces. The tonal atmosphere is romantic and warm, differing somewhat from the deeper colours of his later work. Second, the artist was at this time still focused on mass. He used gradations of pink on the body to express the relationship between light and shadow, achieving the real weight, thickness, and even warmth of the human body. This could be considered the extension and development of the charcoal shadows he added to his drawings on paper.

Third, he used mass to convey perspective. In the nude woman’s reclining posture, the top half of her body appears nearer to the viewer while the lower half of the body is placed deeper in the painting. This expresses a perspectival relationship in space, which would become decidedly different from the flattened spaces of Sanyu’s late work.

Pot de Fleurs Rouges sold for HK$43.6m

Besides female nudes, flowers are also important subject in Sanyu’s artworks. Pot de Fleurs Rouges created by Sanyu in the 1930s-40s sparked intense bidding last night. Estimated at HK28m-40m, the painting was hammered down at HK$36.5m and sold for HK$43.6m after premium to a gentleman in the room.

The painting comprises of three classic colours from the 1930s, the cream in the flat background, the pale grey in the stems, leaves, and flowerpot, and the pink of the flowers. The treatment of the leaves, stems, and petals are akin to the brushstrokes of the ‘flying white’ (feibai) style in calligraphy, which highlights the object’s spirit through modulations in tone.


Another highlight of the sale fell to the cover lot of the sale - 21.04.59 by abstract master Zao Wou-Ki, whose works have been highly sought after in recent auctions and sold for record-setting prices one after another. It was hammered down at HK$90m and sold for HK$104m after premium to the telephone client of Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art.

The sale realised a total of HK$610.56m (US$77.9m), in which HK$290m (47% of the sale total) was contributed by Sanyu and HK$160m (26% of the sale total) by Zao Wou-Ki. 32 lots of 34 lots offered were successfully sold, achieving a sell-through rate of 94%.

Top six lots

Sanyu (1895-1966). Nu

Lot no.: 1029
Size: 122.5 x 135cm
Created in: 1965
signed in Chinese and French; signed in French, dated 4.1965 and inscribed in Chinese on the reverse

  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1966
  • Collection of Yves Bideau (Jean François Bideau)
  • Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel
  • Collection Dreyfus, Paris
  • Important Private Collection

Estimate: in excess of HK$150m
Hammer price: HK$172,000,000
Price realised: HK$197,974,000

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). 21.04.59

Lot no.: 1021
Size: 130 x 162cm
Created in: 1959

  • Collection of the artist
  • Estate of the artist
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private European collector

Estimate: HK$75,000,000 - 100,000,000
Hammer price: HK$90,000,000
Price realised: HK$104,576,000

Sanyu (1895-1966). Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois

Lot no.: 1030
Size: 45.2 x 81.2cm
Created in: 1930s

  • Collection of Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris (inventory no. 59)
  • Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private European collector in 1980

Estimate: HK$35,000,000 - 45,000,000
Hammer price: HK$42,000,000
Price realised: HK$49,904,000

Sanyu (1895-1966). Pot De Fleurs Rouges

Lot no.: 1034
Size: 92 x 60.3cm
Created in: 1930-1940s

  • Acquired directly from the artist by the former owner
  • Private Swiss Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 May 2005, Lot 26
  • Acquired directly from the above by the former private Asian collector
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 4 April 2011, Lot 658
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate: HK$28,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer price: HK$36,500,000
Price realised: HK$43,639,500

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). Ville Engloutie

Lot no.: 1020
Size: 59.5 x 73cm
Created in: 1954

Private American Collection
Christie's, Taipei, 20 April 1997, Lot 347
Private Asian Collection
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 31 October 2004, Lot 326
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer price: HK$26,000,000
Price realised: HK$31,375,000

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010). Longevity and Harvest

Lot no.: 1032
Size: 100 x 60.5cm
Created in: 1959
Provenance: Important Private Asian Collection
Estimate: HK$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer price: HK$23,000,000
Price realised: HK$27,775,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 5 October 2019
Lots offered: 34
Unsold: 2
Sold: 32
Sold by lot: 94%
Sale total: HK$610,566,000