Chronology

1895

Born in Nanchong, Sichuan Province on 14 October.

1913

Demonstrating a lively interest and a nascent ability, Sanyu began painting lessons with his father, who was recognized in Nanchong for his skill in painting lions and horses. When Sanyu showed aptitude in calligraphy, his father arranged for him to study with the renowned Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi (1877-1938).

1918-19

Left Nanchong for Japan to visit his second oldest brother, Chang Bicheng (1883-1943) and stayed with him in Japan for one or two years.

1920

Returned to Shanghai with Bicheng, who founded the Yixin Toothbrush Company, for which Sanyu designed the packaging and advertisements.

1921

Inspired by the wave of students traveling to France under the government-sponsored work-study program, Sanyu departed for Paris to study art. In Paris he befriended the Chinese artist Xu Beihong and his wife, Jiang Biwei. Sanyu gave Xu Beihong an ink-and-watercolor rendition of peonies. This painting, titled Peonies, signed and dated 1921 in Paris, is the earliest extant work by Sanyu.

Together with Xu Beihong, Xie Shoukang, Liu Jiwen, Shao Xunmei, Zhang Daofan, Sun Peicang, and other artists, Sanyu co-founded the Heavenly Dog Society in a spirited reaction to the Heavenly Horse Society, founded by Liu Haisu a year earlier in Shanghai. Early in the summer, Xu Beihong and Jiang Biwei moved to Berlin, and in August, Sanyu, together with Sun Peicang, visited them. Sanyu remained in Berlin for two years.

1923

Sanyu returned to Paris and stayed at a hotel off the Boulevard Saint Michel. Sanyu enjoyed generous monthly support from his brother Junmin. This financial freedom gave Sanyu the confidence to detach himself occasionally from the Chinese student groups and mingle more with the French.

1925

Exhibition at the Salon d’Automne.

1926-27

Returned to Shanghai. On 2 December 1926, Shao Xunmei married Sheng Peiyu, and one month later he invited his close friends, including Sanyu, to a dinner celebration at his home. Among the guests were Liu Haisu, Xu Zhimo, Wang Yacheng, Wang Jiyuan, Zhang Guangyu, and others. After dinner, at Liu Haisu’s suggestion, Shao Xunmei produced ink, brush, and paper, and each artist honored the newlyweds with a special painting for the occasion. In the same festive spirit the artists each contributed to a landscape fan painting, which Xu Zhimo then inscribed with a dedication.

1928

Exhibition at the Salon d’Automne.

On 10 April Sanyu married Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère at the city hall of the 5th arrondissement in Paris. Their marriage ended in 24 July 1931.

1929

Met Henri-Pierre Roché, a dynamic art collector and dealer at the vortex of the Paris art world during the first part of the twentieth century. Roché supported Sanyu by buying a large number of his works. By 1931, Roché had collected 109 paintings and 600 drawings.

1930

Exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries.

Three copperplate prints by Sanyu were included in The Poems of T’ao Ts’ien (Tao Qian or Tao Yuanming 327-427), published, with a preface by Paul Valéry (1871-1945), in Paris by Editions Lemarget in a limited edition of 306 copies, translated into French by Liang Tsong Tai (Liang Zhongdai, 1903-83).

During the early 1930s Johan Franco (1908-88) played a critical role in Sanyu’s life. Although Franco was a composer by profession, he also had strong ties to the art world. Both his mother and his stepmother were artists; his uncle, David van Buuren, was an avid art collector whose wife, Alice, after his death founded a museum in his name in Brussels; and his cousin Vincent Willem van Gogh, the painter’s nephew, founded the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Through these connections Franco arranged several exhibitions in Holland for Sanyu and attempted to promote his paintings to his uncle in Belgium. All these efforts met with limited success. Franco’s deep commitment to Sanyu is attested by his will dated 1932: “I bequeath free of duties and charges to Mr. Yu Sanyu, born in Szechuan [Sichuan], China, on 14 October 1901, presently living in Paris, an annuity of 500 francs per three months.”

1931

In a letter dated 9 February the poet Xu Zhimo, in Shanghai, wrote to Liu Haisu, in Paris, that Chen Xuepin (1901-99) had brought to him from Paris one of Sanyu’s “cosmically grand legs,” referring to Sanyu’s sketches of nude women with exaggerated legs, typical of this period. In his letters to Liu, Xu yearned for the vivacity that the City of Light had to offer. His letters intimated a close relationship with Sanyu.

In May, Chang Junmin, Sanyu’s oldest brother, died of a liver ailment at the age of 67.

1932

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants. This exhibition was featured in the 10 February 1932 issue of VU magazine.

Exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries.

Sanyu was listed in the entry of volume three of the Dictionnaire biographique des artistes contemporaines 1910-1930 (Biographical dictionary on contemporary artists, 1910-1930), edited by Joseph Edouard and published by Art et Editions in Paris.

Johan Franco organized an exhibition for Sanyu at the J. H. de Bois Gallery in Haarlem, Holland.

Pang Xunqin and Ni Yide founded the Storm Society in Shanghai in October.

1933

The National Museum of Foreign and Contemporary Art (Jeu de Paume of the Tulleries) organized an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from 10 May to 25 June with Xu Beihong, professor of the National Central University of Nanking, and André Dezarrois, curator of the museum of Foreign and Contemporary Art, as coordinators. Sanyu was among the eighty-two artists represented.

Johan Franco arranged an exhibition for Sanyu at the Kunstzaal Van Lier in Amsterdam from 13 to 31 May.

1934

Johan Franco organized a second exhibition at the Kunstzaal Van Lier in Amsterdam, from 14 April to 3 May.

In September, to make ends, Sanyu took a job at a Chinese restaurant for less than a thousand francs a month.

1936

Exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries.

Unable to sell his paintings, and with no help from family or friends, Sanyu must consider alternative means of support. An avid tennis player, he invented ping-tennis, a combination of ping-pong and tennis. In order to promote ping-tennis to the Germans, who he felt showed interest in the sport, he went to Berlin attending the 1936 Olympics. While it did not catch on in Germany, ping-tennis did meet with a small degree of success in France.

1938

Returned to China for a short visit.

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

1942

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

1943

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

1944

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

Entries for the salon exhibitions during the years 1942-44 indicated that Sanyu showed only his sculptures of animals and figures, perhaps because painting supplies became an impossible luxury during the war.

1945

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

On 19 January the Parisien Libéré published an article by Sanyu entitled “Reflections of a Chinese Painter on Picasso”.

1946

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

Exhibition at the Salon d’Automne.

Exhibition at the Paris Club Féminin (Paris Women’s Club).

1947

Exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries.

1948

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

In April, Zao Wouki and his wife, Lalan, arrived in Paris and took a studio near Sanyu’s.

Went to New York and met Robert Frank.

1950

Returned to Paris.

1954

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

1956

Exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants.

Helen Gee, the Chinese artist Yun Gee’s ex-wife, visited Sanyu when she and her daughter were in Paris.

1958

Sanyu sold a few sets of ping-tennis equipment to the French newspaper France Soir, whose sports editor, Alain Bernard, had expressed an interest in helping Sanyu promote the sport.

1959

Through Robert Frank, Sanyu met the French artist Jacques Monory, whose wife, Sabine, visited Sanyu regularly in his studio to watch him paint and to share the exotic foods he prepared.

During the 1950s Sanyu mingled with a circle of European artists that included Monory, Marcel van Thienen, Philippe Hiquily and Alberto Giacometti.

1961

Zhang Daqian held an exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris of his famous splashed-ink masterpiece Giant Lotus, for which Sanyu designed the exhibition catalogue.

1962

Sanyu offered lessons in ping-tennis at the Club de Bagatelle in Paris.

1963

On January, Guo Youshou, the cultural councilor from Taiwan to France, held a seminar for Chinese students of art and literature studying in France.

n October, Huang Jilu, Minister of Education of Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), visited France. A native of Sichuan, he knew of Sanyu and requested a visit with him. He also invited Sanyu to teach at the National Normal University in Taiwan and to hold a one-man exhibition in Taipei.

1964

In April, Sanyu shipped forty-two paintings to Taiwan for the proposed exhibition at the National Museum of History.

1965

On 17 December Sanyu held an exhibition at the home of Natacha and Etienne Lévy, in Paris, that is attended by many of the Lévy’s friends as well as by four Chinese artists: Zhao Wouki, Zhu Dequn, Pan Yuliang, and Xi Dejin.

1966

On 12 August Sanyu died in his studio and was then buried in Cimetière parisien de Pantin, lot identification number 1296 TR 1966, lot location: 92-13-5. (Cimetière parisien de Pantin is located in 164, ave Jean-Jaurès, 93 Pantin, Tel 01 48 10 81 00. Metro line 7 to Aubervilliers - Pantin Quatre Chemins.)