Sanyu (painter)

Sanyu (painter)

Sanyu (San Yu or Chang Yu) (1901-1966) (simplified Chinese: 常玉; traditional Chinese: 常玉; born 14 October 1901 in Nanchong, Sichuan Province) is a Chinese-French painter.



Sanyu (or Chang Yu) was born in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, on 14 October 1901. His family owned one of the largest silk-weaving mills in Sichuan, the Dehe Silk Factory, which was managed by Sanyu's eldest brother Chang Junmin. The business was so successful that Junmin earned the accolade Millionaire Chang of Nanchong and the annals of the city of Nanchong record and applaud his accomplishments. Thirty-seven years older than Sanyu, Junmin doted on his younger brother and, recognizing his interest and talent in art, spared little to support and encourage all his artistic endeavors. The family's wealth allowed Sanyu to be schooled at home, which included calligraphy lessons with the Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi (1877-1938) and painting lessons with his father, known in Nanchong for his skill in painting lions and horses.

Growing up in Nanchong, approximately 300 kilometres from Chengdu, Sanyu was most probably unaffected by the discontent that was brewing in the major cities of China at this time. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic in 1911, China was faced with growing autocracy from within and encroaching imperialism from without. Crippled by these dual tensions, compounded by the ineffectiveness of antiquated social and political systems, China was rendered impotent, forcing many to reassess the predicament of their torn nation. The unacceptable terms of the Treaty of Versailles forced a counter movement that gained momentum through student organizations across the country, culminating in the historic May Fourth Incident. Academicians and students led the revolt against foreign infringement of China's territorial sovereignty and rights to self-rule. They recognized that to regain their country's integrity, China needed to strengthen itself through reform. A unified voice demanded the rejuvenation of the country through modernization, which, at that time, meant Westernization. Many resolved, therefore, to travel abroad to learn the ways of the West in order to benefit their troubled nation.

As a response to this call, students traveled to France under a government-sponsored work-study program. Although it is uncertain whether Sanyu participated in this program, his decision to make France his destination in 1921 was no doubt inspired by the migrating wave of art students, such as Xu Beihong and his wife Jiang Biwei with whom Sanyu became close friends. Xu and Jiang, who had arrived a year before Sanyu, were already finding life in the City of Light too costly for their meager income and decided to move to Berlin where living was cheaper. Sanyu, with no set agenda in Paris and unfettered by financial concerns, thanks to Junmin's generous support, decided to go along with them to Berlin. During this time, Sanyu formed friendships with other Chinese artists and writers, but instead of making art, they formed a culinary club, gathering daily to plan and prepare gastronomic specialties of their hometowns and having a good time. Only two works by Sanyu, Peonies and Landscape with Willow Trees, both painted in traditional brush and ink style, survive, further attesting to the lack of artistic activity during this period.

After two years in Berlin, Sanyu returned to Paris in 1923. While most of the Chinese art students aspired to enroll in the esteemed École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Sanyu preferred the less academic environment of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Here, Sanyu plunged into what to him was the exotic world of nude drawing. One can imagine the excitement the young Sanyu must have felt being in a studio where nude models, forbidden at home, posed at arm's reach. In this free and uninhibited environment, he could experiment with Western sketching techniques to explore and express the lines of the human form. Sanyu’s early works in Paris comprise exclusively ink and pencil drawings of nudes and figures, of which over 2000 examples survive today.

Since Sanyu was trained in Chinese calligraphy in his youth, it is not surprising that a majority of his nude drawings was done in Chinese ink and brush. The trained calligraphic stroke, with its varying innuendos, afforded Sanyu a unique chance to delineate the human body, not so much in terms of its anatomy but more as a means of expressing the beauty and sensitivity of a flowing line. With only a few strokes, relying on the fluidity and innate qualities of brush and ink, he was able to capture the essence of his subject.


It was at La Grande Chaumière where Sanyu met his future wife. A young lady of twenty-one, Marcelle was impressed with Sanyu's talent and requested that he teach her. They became intimate and lived together for three years before getting married. Marcelle recalls that although they shared a lively time together, they never had enough money. Sanyu, however, seemed unconcerned, spending most of his time leisurely sitting in the cafés sketching for hours on the placemats and hanging out with friends. Accustomed to his brother's support, he was confident that money coming from home would continue, but the increasingly long intervals between allowances already anticipate the financial difficulties about to beset Sanyu.

Dealership with Henri-Pierre Roché

In 1929, a year after his marriage, Sanyu met Henri-Pierre Roché, an astute and dynamic art collector and dealer better known as the author of Jules et Jim and Les deux anglaises et le continent. Sanyu was now facing financial difficulties as funds from Junmin became irregular due to the downturn in the silk business back home. Roché, who had a keen interest in discovering talent, with artists like Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi to his credit, saw promise in Sanyu and agreed to act as his dealer. According to Gertrude Stein, Roché “knew everybody . . . and could introduce anybody to anybody.” Indeed, Roché was the consummate dealer, promoting his artists to prominent collectors throughout Europe. Over the next two years Roché collected 111 paintings and 600 drawings by Sanyu. Nonetheless, Sanyu lamented, “As for my situation, it is very bad. My art dealer is paying me half the price and he buys very little from me. This is all due to the crisis. I can hardly go on living anymore. I don't know what I will do.” Sanyu's constant complaining and demands for money turned him into more of a financial and emotional liability than an artistic asset and in 1932, Roché decided to drop the relationship.


Despite the sour note on which their relationship ended, Roché can actually be credited for the surge in Sanyu's creativity and development during this time. He had encouraged Sanyu to experiment with printmaking as a means of reaching a wider public at a lower cost. In prints Sanyu found another medium in which he could demonstrate the same sensitivity to economy of line as his drawings. Zinc plates for a series of prints commissioned by Roché show how the artist, using drypoint, an intaglio technique, incised thin and barely discernible lines directly onto the metal plate to create a delicate burr that produces the fine velvety effect of the finished image. Drypoint worked particularly well for Sanyu, the small size of the plates lent an intimacy with the viewer and the fine lines conveyed the essence of his simplicity and he applied it skillfully and effectively to his nudes. Even though Sanyu appeared to prefer drypoint, this method required the use of a press and the services of a professional printer, both costly. This was solved when he discovered linocut in 1932 at which time he started to make larger prints. It should be noted that both Picasso and Matisse favored etching and drypoint during this period and Sanyu was undoubtedly influenced by these masters' prolific printmaking activities. However, Matisse did not start using linocut until 1938 and Picasso 1959, both years after Sanyu's initial exploration of the technique.

Matisse once noted that an artist “must draw first to cultivate the spirit and that it is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color. . .” Whether or not Sanyu was aware of Matisse's views, this was precisely the path he followed. All the sketching and drawing during his first eight years in Paris served to prepare Sanyu for his eventual foray into oil painting. His earliest oil painting is dated 1929, the year he met Roché, who undoubtedly saw the future potential of the oil medium for Sanyu and encouraged him to explore it. Under Roché's tutelage, Sanyu gained entrance to the Salon des Tuileries in 1930 and for the first time exhibited an oil painting, instead of the nude and still life drawings selected for previous salon exhibitions. By the early 1930s Sanyu was fully committed to oil painting, never revisiting printmaking and returning to drawings only as study sketches for his works in oil.

By the late 1930s and early 1940s with the war ravaging Europe, Sanyu fell into even more dire straits. Interest in ping-tennis (Ping Pong) dwindled and with no financial support, he could not even buy art supplies. Entries for salon exhibitions during this time indicate that Sanyu showed only sculptures of animals and figures (S001 and S002). Without the means to buy proper material, these sculptures are made of plaster and decorated with paint.

Friendship with Robert Frank

In 1948, Sanyu traveled to New York. Looking for a place to stay, he met the renowned Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank who was planning an extended trip to Paris. The two decided to exchange studios. A change of plans, however, kept Frank in New York and they became roommates. According to Frank, “Sanyu came to America to promote ping-tennis. That was his only reason for coming.” 11 As soon as Sanyu moved into Frank's studio, he asked that all of Frank's furniture be removed so that he could paint the floor with his ping-tennis court. “I'll never forget the way he painted it,” Frank recalls, “It took days. He painted it with the utmost care. It was beautiful. I'm sorry that I didn't photograph it.” Sanyu confided to Frank that he was finished with painting and that for him, ping-tennis was the only way to attain financial prosperity. Evidently, he went to New York to look up Gottfried von Cramm who had moved there from Germany after marrying the wealthy American heiress Barbara Hutton. Von Cramm, having personal difficulties himself, was in no position to help Sanyu and so Sanyu's aspirations for his sport were once again thwarted. Aware of his friend's disappointment, Frank organized an exhibition for Sanyu in New York, but none of the paintings sold. Disillusioned, Sanyu decided to return to Paris leaving all his paintings to Frank as a way of repaying him for supporting him during his two-year stay in New York. Over the next two decades, Sanyu and Frank developed a deep and abiding friendship. As Frank's career as a photographer took off, he never forgot his dear friend and kept his paintings with him wherever he moved over the next fifty years. In 1997, Frank sold these paintings and donated the proceeds to establish the Sanyu Scholarship Fund at Yale University to support Chinese students of art.

Returned to Paris

When Sanyu returned to Paris in 1950, even though the post-war art market was recovering, he still had only meager success selling his paintings. He managed to survive by painting furniture and doing some carpentry work for Chinese friends in the restaurant business. There were a few promising moments for ping-tennis such as when he sold a few sets of ping-tennis equipment to the French newspaper France Soir and when he was asked to give instructions at a sports club but they amounted to virtually nothing. When Robert Frank visited Sanyu during this period, he sensed that Sanyu was lonely and ever more withdrawn. He didn't have many friends and, according to Frank, people found it difficult to make contact with him. Perhaps the repeated disappointments in his life, whether as an artist or as the inventor of ping-tennis, forced him to acknowledge that no matter how difficult, he was first and foremost an artist.

Proposed Exhibition in Taiwan National Museum of History

In 1964, Sanyu shipped forty-two paintings to Taiwan for the proposed exhibition with the intention of making the trip there himself a few months later. For unknown reasons, his travel plans failed to materialize. He tried to get his paintings back, but to no avail. Shortly thereafter, Sanyu died and his paintings have remained in the safekeeping of the National Museum of History in Taiwan ever since.


On 12 August 1966, Mr. Hau Shing Kang, a Chinese friend who owned a restaurant in Paris, went to visit Sanyu at his studio at 28 rue de la Sablière. When his repeated knocks on the door went unanswered, he alerted the concierge. Upon forcing the door open, they smelled a strong gaseous odor and when they went up to Sanyu's loft bedroom, they found him dead, lying in his bed with a book propped against his chest. According to Mr. Hau, Sanyu had a few friends over for a late dinner the night before and probably did not turn off his stove properly. After his friends left, Sanyu went up to read and, unaware of the gas leak, died in his sleep.


SANYU Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings

  • Wong, Rita. SANYU, Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings. U.S.A.: University of Washington Press. pp. 384. ISBN 957-744-411-3. 


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