SAN YU (Nanchong, CHINA 1901 - Paris, France 1966)


Sanyu (Chinese/French 1901–1966), born Chang Yu in Nanchong, is considered an early leader of Chinese Modern Art. For his mastery of form and color, he is sometimes referred to as “the Chinese Matisse.” As a boy, Sanyu was home-schooled, being taught calligraphy lessons with the Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi (Chinese, 1866-1948) and painting by his father, who was respected for his skills at painting lions and horses. Sanyu’s family recognized his talent as an artist, and enabled him to travel to France to pursue his studies. He arrived in Paris in 1921, where he met other Chinese artists, such as Xu Beihong (Chinese, 1895-1953), who had also migrated there. They moved to Berlin and settled, but Sanyu soon returned to Paris and enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he drew nudes for the first time.

For a while Sanyu was represented by the gallerist Henri-Pierre Roché, famous for discovering artists such as Marie Laurencin (French, 1885-1956), Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963), Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968), and Constantin Brancusi (Romanian, 1876–1957). Roché encouraged Sanyu to explore printmaking and finally oil painting. Roché would collect a total of 111 paintings and 600 drawings by Sanyu. The artist frequented other artists—both European and Chinese—in Paris, such as Pang Xunqin (Chinese, 1906–1985) and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Swiss, 1901–1966). His friend and patron Johan Franco promoted his worked and organized several exhibitions for him in Holland. Sanyu’s style maintained the grace and simplicity of gesture learned from his study of Chinese calligraphy, but integrated his admiration for Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954) in his appropriation of color, blending Minimalism with a Modernist spatial integrity.

Sanyu was also close to the photographer Robert Frank (American, b.1924), who established the Sanyu Scholarship Fund at Yale University to support Chinese students of art, with the proceeds from the sales of Sanyu’s paintings donated to him. Sanyu exhibited twice at the Salon d’Automne, 11 times at the Salon des Indépendants, at the Salon des Tuileries, and the National Museum of Foreign and Contemporary Art (Jeu de Paume). Retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held at the National Museum of History in Taipei, and at the Musée Guimet in Paris. His work has also been exhibited by the Bureau d’Art in Paris, and a catalogue raisonné of his work has been published by the University of Washington Press. The National Museum of History in Taipei houses 42 of his paintings.

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