According to Rita I-Wong, the prominent expert and scholar of the artist's work and author of his catalogue raisonne, Sanyu is regarded as 'the Chinese Matisse'.
Born in Sichuan from a wealthy and educated family, Sanyu seized the opportunity to travel and live abroad. Instead of studying in formal schools, he chose the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, which was far removed from artistic academic training at the time. There he explored Western genres, such as still life, and the exploration of the naked figure.naked figure.
Sanyu was among the first group of Chinese artists to study in Paris. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Lin Fengmian, who went back to China, Sanyu remained in the French capital to study the continuous evolving modernist movement. These Chinese artists influenced by the Western art they were exposed to, elected to use oil paint, and to employ western artistic styles, mainly impressionism. Sanyu's paintings never stopped evolving over the decades he spent in France. The artist did not merely refine the form of his paintings but also hoped to master the essence of his works. Progresses in the arts allowed him to look at subjects for paintings or drawings differently. He did not change his techniques, but was instead inspired by photography and its idea of looking at subjects from a different perspective. Sanyu's oeuvre has fused Chinese traditional arts with the avant-garde movement in Paris. He had mastered calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting during his time in China and was exposed to Chinese art in Paris. The collection of Chinese art was popular in the 19th century and had influenced many of the artists at the time; including Van Gogh, who incorporated Asian aesthetics in his works.
This painting, Potted Peonies (Lot 10), is the very epitome of Sanyu's quest to bridge East and West, traditional and contemporary. The rapidity and minimalism of the Chinese brush strokes are still apparent and the motif is reminiscent of the tradition of classical Chinese painting of flowers. However, when Sanyu depicts the flowers, he is influenced by Western still-lifes, the rigidity and absence of movement is apparent. The spontaneity of the rendering remains but akin to photography the subject is suspended in time. Flowers were one of Sanyu's favorite subjects. He has explored this theme extensively during his career, giving each painting its own originality. Potted Peonies is a classic example of Sanyu's works of the 1940's. He has by then abandoned the representation of round bouquets in a lighter and brighter palette. The darker hues, pronounced black contours growing from the main stem into the black leaves, and the minimalist brushstrokes are typical to this period. The flowers themselves, subject of the painting, are loosely painted and have an ethereal quality in this otherwise solid painting.
Against the dark background, the petals almost appear as a negative image. Potted Peonies is the prime illustration of the influence photography had on Sanyu's work- not just in flower paintings but also in paintings human figures. The emphasis on the flowers through the play on light is a breakthrough in Sanyu's work. He further pursues this technique in later paintings of flowers from the 1950's. The color and tones are evocative of classical Chinese painting from the past, as are the Chinese symbols found on the tablecloth. This motif can be found in his oil paintings from the 1930's onwards.
This distinctive style, closely associated to classical Chinese aesthetics, is present in Sanyu's paintings of flowers, such as Pink Chrysanthemum in a Glass Vase (1930's), Vase of Lilies with Green Ground (1940's), as well as in his paintings of plants and animals, White Peonies, Black Butterflies and Cat (1955). Sanyu further uses this style in animal paintings, such as Goldfish (1930's-1940's), and in, Two Nudes on a Red Tapestry (1950's). The composition has also evolved and is another stage in Sanyu's minimalist research. The artist always sought to avoid unnecessary details and focus on colors and lines. In Potted Peonies, the brush becomes more angular, attaining even further forms of purity and simplicity. A few paintings of peonies, several in the collections of the National Museum of History of Taiwan and one in the Cernuschi Museum of the Asian Arts of Paris, acquired in 1963, during the artist's lifetime, illustrate this stylistic exploration. Potted Peonies is one of Sanyu's most outstanding works. His choice of tones, composition, light and contrast, and simplistic brush strokes, resulted in a minimalistic and harmonious piece, which successfully marry the East and West.
Potted Peonies was exhibited at the Salon des Independants in 1954, alongside, Lotus, another work by Sanyu. As written in the catalogue of this 65th edition of the exhibition: 'The "Independent Artists" Society, based on the idea of the abolishment of the admission juries, aims to give the opportunity to the artists to freely exhibit their works to the Public's judgment.' Such a statement fits the career and personality of Sanyu very appropriately.