Sanyu’s nude that leads Sotheby’s spring sale may offer rare glimpse into the artist’s love life

A nude painting by Chinese-French painter Sanyu may provide an inkling into the artist’s love life in Paris.

Titled Quatre nus, the 122-cm-tall figurative painting by Sanyu is one of the standout lots at the upcoming Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale, scheduled on 8 July.

Guaranteed by the auction house, the 1952 painting features four women lounging and sunbathing naked in prone positions on what is presumably a lawn, given its verdant tone.

“Yet no one knows what exactly it is,” said Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art.

“The models could be floating in the sky.”

It was the artist's intention to leave room for interpretation when he decided to drop the flower that he originally intended to paint against the verdant green. Hidden in plain sight on the bottom right of the canvas, the sketch is barely noticeable when look from afar, yet fairly visible if you look closer.

“He could have covered the unfinished flower sketch with paints but he chose not to," noted Chang. "Now viewers have a chance to know the painting process.”

Born in Sichuan province in 1901, China, Sanyu moved to Paris in the early '20s to study art. Life in the French capital was fruitful, at least during the roaring ‘20s. It was the time when he developed a penchant for female nude and infused his joie de vivre into his artworks.

Mostly done in ink and watercolour, Sanyu’s nudes during the ‘20s and ‘30s were characterised by minimal lines, expressive brushstrokes and distorted or exaggerated body form that was largely informed by the avant-garde movement.

Nu Rose Sur Tissus Chinois (1930s) 

From then on, female nude had become a subject that compelled him to revisit again and again. As time passed, outlines of his nudes got darker and bolder and skin tone went from pink to ochre. By the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Sanyu’s nudes had become more sophisticated and refined in both technique and depiction of the female body. The curves of the female form bear the impression of a Chinese landscape painting and, along with it, his admiration for women figure.

Of the 56 nude oil paintings produced in his lifetime, only six of them feature nude figures in groups of three or more. Quatre nus stands out from the pack not only because it is well-executed but also because it embraces cultural diversity, an approach rarely found among Chinese artists at the time.

"The variation in hair colour may suggest this is an ethnically diverse group of women,” said Chang, who pointed out the woman lying on the far top with dark hair in bunches can be found in other Sanyu’s paintings. 

“Judging by their postures, we can tell the intimacy between the painter and his models,” she added.

Five Nudes (1950)

Nu (1965)

Demand for Sanyu’s works has been rising in the past few years. His largest nude painting Five Nudes (1950) sold for a record HK$303m at Christie’s last November, hot on the heels of the HK$198m sale of his single nude painting Nu (1965) a month earlier. 

Quatre nus will be featured alongside Femme nue étendue and Panier de poires, the artist’s rare oil paintings on mirror, which are estimated at HK$6m and HK$5m respectively.

Femme nue etendue (1929), oil on mirror, 33 x 42 cm
Est. HK$6,000,000 – 10,000,000 / US$775,000 – 1,290,000

Panier de poires (1930s), oil on mirror, 34 x 43 cm
Est. HK$5,000,000 – 8,000,000 / US$645,000 – 1,030,000

Also headlining the evening sale is a pentaptych abstract by Chu Teh-Chun, the only five-panel work the artist ever produced.

Dubbed Les éléments confédérés, the swirling 650-cm-wide abstract is the largest oil painting by Chu still in private hands. This bravura abstract in shades of green and blue conveys a whimsical resemblance of Chinses landscapes. It was conceived upon Chu’s return to China for the first time since his departure in 1949.

Les éléments confédérés (1983-94)

Executed between 1983 and 84, the work is a tip of the hat to Beethoven's symphony Nº9, a masterpiece that Chu was listening when he was painting.

Last year, his abstract work Synthese hivernale C (1988) went for more than HK$45m (€5.17 m), five times its estimate at a Paris sale. Bidding for Les éléments confédérés at the upcoming Sotheby's sale will start at HK$80m.

Synthese hivernale C (1988)

Born in China’s Jiangsu Province in 1920, Chu attended the National College of Art in Hangzhou where he studied alongside artists Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-ki. The three later known as the “Three Musketeers” of Chinese art.

Unlike Sanyu, Chu had settled down to a more steady love life. In 1955 he created a portrait of his devoted wife Chu Ching-Chao, which won him the silver medal at the Spring Salon in Paris and later hailed as the “Mona Lisa of the East”.

With a passion for Chinese poetry and calligraphy, Chu believed poetry and painting shared the same rules and rhythms. This is perhaps why the artist had a tendency to produce multi-panel works, as it helps direct viewers to observe the work in a left-to-right manner, or the other way around, just like reading a poem. The concept of multi-panel painting derives from folding screen, a type of traditional Chinese furniture, as suggested by Chang.

The pentaptych form of Les éléments confédérés echoes the Five Elements in Chinese philosophy, namely wood, earth, water, metal and fire. It is an essential concept deep-rooted in Chinese culture that constitutes all things in the universe.

Other highlighted artists at the sale include Zao Wou-Ki, Wu Guanzhong and Guan Zilan, among celebrated others.

Lot no. 1014 | Les éléments confédérés (1983) by Chu Teh-Chun
oil on canvas (pentaptych), 162 by 650 cm

Important Private European Collection

Estimate upon request; bidding starts at HK$80m

Lot no. 1024 | Quatre nus (1952) by Sanyu 
oil on masonite, 100 by 122 cm


  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1966
  • Collection of Yves Bideau (Jean François Bideau), Paris
  • Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris 
  • Sotheby’s, Taipei, 10 April 1994, Lot 68
  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan 
  • Christie’s, Hong Kong, 27 November 2005, Lot 185 
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Estimate upon request