Femme en rouge (Woman in Red) (Lot 27) is an illustration of an elegant and relaxed woman wearing a cloche hat, which was quite popular in the 1920s, a rosy red garment and black gloves. Women wore their hats low then, slightly covering their eyebrows. The elegance of the woman with only her eyes and ruby red lips showing evokes the Three Kingdoms prince and poet Cao Zhi's description of the Luo River Goddess: "The perfect physique with the most desirable form; with slender shoulders and willowy waistline." Femme en rouge adds another appealing feminine image to complement Sanyu's female nudes.
The painting's construction draws on three forms of artistic expression - lines and textures, empty space, and 'simplification'. The female image is created by the lines and textures used. The rosy red contour forms an elongated figure, and the brown contour places emphasis on the elegant chignon. The physical form is illustrated by the artist's use of contouring lines, which are extended to the black hat and gloves. The simple and soft lines are gentle and poetic, with meticulous care placed on the illustration of the woman's clothing. The light brushstrokes of rosy colour are painted in different directions, amassing texture against a white background and forming a fabric-like texture. In Roché's documentation, we learn that the woman is wearing a pink sweater (chandail rose), and upon closer inspection, we can see that Sanyu added petal-like decorations to the garment, giving the image an added romantic touch.
Femme en rouge demonstrates Sanyu's skillful use of negative space to express key elements. At a time when Western portraiture was gradually moving away from representation, Sanyu chose to leave the woman's face blank with only slight contours and a light blush on her cheek. The negative space does not fragment the image, but rather unites with the woman's hat, garment, gloves and other blocks of colour to give the overall composition a subtle and elegant sense of balance. The painting also marks Sanyu's further progression into simplification. During World War I (1914-1918), African sculptures were becoming popular in the West, fuelling a move away from the naturalistic ideal of beauty. Chen Yanfeng once said, "around 1925, when Alberto Giacometti was fascinated with African primitive art, Sanyu's ink-brush female nudes also began to show comb-like shapes for their toes." The comb-like toes frequently observed in Sanyu's earlier works are further simplified in this painting, with three simple white lines indicating the woman's crossed fingers, demonstrating Sanyu's confidence in the simplification of form.
A Rare Private Collection
In 1956, Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959), the first Sanyu collector, catalogued his Sanyu collection from the early 1930s, which included 109 artworks. The catalogue records the oil paintings by scale, from large to small. Three of them - Zèbre (Roché catalogue No. 27), Femme en rouge (Roché catalogue No. 76) and L'Atelier, pose du modèle (Roché catalogue No. 88) - are included in this sale. The original frames have been preserved. On the reverse of the paintings are labels and serial numbers that correspond to Roché's catalogue, indicating the artworks' history and significance. In Roché's catalogue record for L'Atelier, pose du modèle (Model Posing in Studio) (Lot 29), the words 'Cadre Bruce' in the 'Encadrement' (Frame) column indicate that Roché had commissioned American cubist painter Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936) to frame the work. During the Great Depression, framing was a way for artists to earn some minor extra income. Sanyu's lifelong creative achievement is the result of his observations of different subjects, endowing each with unique aesthetic value. The rare subjects included in this sale are seldom seen in the market: a scene from the Académie de la Grande Chaumière that greatly influenced Sanyu, an upper-body portrait as seen in Femme en rouge (Woman in Red) (Lot 27), and a portrayal of the internal as seen in Zèbre (Zebra) (Lot 28). These three unique subjects are a departure from the artist's more commonly seen floral still lifes and female nudes, making them very rare and valuable works.
Sanyu: A Chinese Modern Art Pioneer
The 20th century was a dramatic time for China, a nation in need of reform as foreign powers sat eagerly poised to invade. Born during this period, Sanyu and Lin Fengmian travelled to France in pursuit of a fusion of Chinese and Western elements to modernise Chinese art. They ended up developing completely different artistic styles. Lin's idea of 'saving the nation with art' was based on continuation and reform of China's academy-style art. Sanyu focused on regeneration and breakthrough based on the avant-garde spirit of China's literati paintings. C. C. Wang (1907-2003) made the following analogy: 'Comparing with the art history of the West, medieval religious paintings can be regarded as China's academy-style paintings, and modernism and impressionism paintings can be compared with China's literati paintings.' Such a practical way of differentiation can also be applied to Xu Beihong, who studied in France at the same time as Sanyu and whose academy-style realism paintings revolutionised Chinese art. Unlike Xu Beihong's frequent use of painting as public commentary, Sanyu's work is more akin to that of Qing Dynasty painter Bada Shanren (1626-1705), whose literati paintings of the internal world made an historic impact on Chinese painting. While Bada Shanren did not reinvent ink painting, he utilized the concept of sheng (control/restraint) and liu bai (empty space) to create large blank voids in his works, giving new life to the compositional approach of Chinese painting. Sanyu's works demonstrate the spirit of literati painting. He did not just simply appropriate Western mediums into Chinese painting, but rather pushed Chinese painting forward through innovation, integrating the ideas of Western modernism with his concept of 'simplification and re-simplification'. He grew away from both Chinese and Western institutional styles and formed his own unique style, which acted as an epoch-crossing transition for Chinese painting, from classical to modern and from ink-brush to oil painting. Sanyu's ultimate goal was to achieve the highest literati ideal of zhuo (unpolished) beauty.
The Reemergence of Chinese Literati Traditions
The Chinese concept of zhuo (unpolished, clumsy) has altered over time. In the Tang Dynasty, zhuo held little significance and the focus was on qiao (skillfulness). During the Ming Dynasty, zhuo was equated with earthiness and innocence, while qiao had the connotation of being unimaginative and commercialised. Zhuo represented a sense of introspective, austere beauty, an unpretentious elegance achieved through brushwork. In addition to expressing this literati ideal of beauty, Sanyu's paintings place an emphasis on creating 'spiritual liveliness' amid a quiet stillness. Like the landscape paintings of the Yuan Dynasty's Ni Zan (1301-1374), Sanyu's paintings seem to lack movement yet simultaneously exude a free-flowing and natural quality as in Ni Zan's anthropomorphic landscapes. Sanyu often showed his paintings to his friend Serge Tcherepnin and explained to him that art is the constant pursuit of perfect lines and must refrain from being pretentious. Sanyu's fluid lines, according to Tcherepnin, seem to be alive and breathing. Sanyu's natural approach to painting echoes the philosophical ideas of Taoism, projecting a humorous and contented worldview and an unrestrained literati personality. Sanyu's early work, Peonies, was painted in 1921 and given to Xu Beihong as a gift. The ink and watercolour rendition of the flowers and leaves demonstrates his playful literati spirit, already visible in the earlier period of his career.