For Sanyu

Henri-Pierre Roché


I look at his beautiful paintings...
he's quite a guy, and he's on his way.

Max Jacob


Sanyu is a formidable force who works with precision and purity.
And what intelligence! What technique!

Shao Xunmei



All the lines of his nudes can speak, and they cry out the anguish of sex!...Look at the composition! The lines!...Simplicity affirmed by complexity! Complexity embraced by simplicity!

Johan Franco


At first, his work gives most viewers a feeling of artlessness and only after long and repeated viewing makes a sincere and serious impression. He knows how to depict the essence and often the humour of things with astonishingly little means.

Preface written by Johan Franco for Sanyu's Holland exhibition brochure,
September 15, 1932

Nicole Parent


July 8 1995 in Paris

I’m the sister of Claude Parent, who undoubtedly received this letter in my place. I remember Sanyu well. He was a charming man, very interesting and very “private”. He had set up, in my club, the ping-tennis court, I don’t recall which year anymore… 1962, 63?

We had a very good relationship. This is all I can tell you. He was also passionate in painting.

I didn’t see him for a very long time because the ping-tennis wasn’t as accepted as we had wished. He didn’t continue giving his lessons. Since then, I didn’t see him anymore.

Sorry for not being able to talk more on this subject.

Nicole Parent


Paris le 8 juillet 95

Je suis la soeur de Claude Parent, qui a reçu cette lettre à ma place, sans doute. Je me souviens très bien de SANYU. C’était un homme charmant, très intéressant et très „intérieur“. Il avait créé, dans mon club, des cours de Ping-Tennis, je ne sais plus en quelle année… 1962, 63?

Nous avions de très bon rapports. C’est tout ce que je peux vous dire. Il était aussi passionné de peinture.

Je ne l’ai pas fréquenté très longtemps car le Ping-Tennis n’ayant pas „pris“ comme nous l’aurions souhaité, il n’a pas continué à donner ses cours. Depuis, je ne l’ai plus revu.

Désolée de ne pouvoir pas en dire davantage à son sujet.

Nicole Parent

Pamela Forrest


Memories of Sanyu

January 1959 will always remain a very special time in my pocket of memories. I had left England for Paris France to marry my wonderful French husband, Daniel. Meeting his varied and fascinating friends was very exciting!

I remember one stood out in particular. A quiet, middle-aged Chinese painter, “Sanyu”. When I got to know him better I discovered that he had a great sense of humor, was a fabulous cook, (he taught me how to prepare my first Chinese dish —— sweet and sour) and, like me, talked and played music to the green plants he loved to grow in his artist-studio-home, near Montparnasse.

Sanyu would distribute his visiting card to you, if he liked you, and then chuckle with delight when he saw your surprise at realising they were old, used metro/bus tickets that he had beautifully hand printed his name and phone number upon.

Sanyu, Daniel, Hiquily (a French sulpter), Don Fink (an American abstract painter), myself and sometimes other friends every June would buy kilos of bright red, juicy cherries and off we would go to “Roland-Garross” to spend many long hours sitting in the sun, munching on cherries and watching the tennis championships. Happy, joyful days!

Sanyu was very poor, but extremely inventive. He would invite us over to share a meal named “The Dragon’s Moustache” (boiled noodles with lots of hot chili sauce). For lack of other ingredients, he thought up exotic names to make his dinners more exciting ——57 and so they were! Although poor, his love and respect for his art were such that I was present at a meeting between Sanyu and a well-known French art gallery owner. When Sanyu refused not only to not sell paintings to this man, but not even let him enter his studio to look at his work. His explanation was simply “I don’t like his face” and “I don’t want my paintings to live with him”.

I have my own private ideas of Sanyu’s death, and maybe I’ll tell you one day. . . But for now, I just want to say that I was out of Paris when he died, and he was taking care of my plants. When I returned, I discovered that all of my plants, and his, had died with him. So he was not really alone.

Thank you, Sanyu, for your friendship. Bye Bye.

Pamela Forrest
Paris France 1996

Robert Frank


Hello Sanyu
Old friend,

You have been gone a long way
and now you are back — your spirit
your dreams and your paintings.
The pink nudes with their small feet
the lonely animals in grandiose empty landscapes
The flowers so elegant and cold

Today, would you be surprised?
Years ago, when I arrived from New York
Rang the bell at your studio in Paris
You open the door — you look at me
and everytime you say:
"Qu'est-ce que tu fais ici ?"

Robert Frank — Mabou, N.S. June 1997

Jean Claude Drouin



In 1957 my father René Drouin, who had been contacted by Henri Pierre Roché, presented me to San Yu. He was looking for partners to play ping-tennis.

This curious game, halfway between tennis and ping-pong, seemed to have the advantages of both sports: both fast and athletic. The promotion of this new sport monopolised, at least during this period, Sanyu’s life, and the contacts he had within the French Ministry of Sports gave him hope that ping-tennis could be introduced into schools as a form of preparation for tennis.

I heard later that these contacts had not been fruitful.

It is said that the practice of a sport reveals one’s character. The way Sanyu played witnessed his overflowing enthusiasm and a rare generosity, which seemed to me to be distant from the traces of his paintings, about which he spoke little. Quite unknown and with practically no resources, he maintained great kindness and a princely attitude in his behaviour and his speech. I remember a veil of sadness in his eyes, but also his brusque, open and jovial laughter. Our life paths separated and we lost contact in 1959. It was just recently that I discovered with great pleasure the marked appreciation which is now given to his work.

November 3, 1999
Jean Claude Drouin



En 1957 mon père René Drouin, contacté par Henri Pierre Roché, me mit en relation avec San Yu qui recherchait des partenaires pour jouer au ping-tennis.

Ce jeu curieux, à mi chemin entre le tennis et le ping-pong, semblait cumuler les avantages des deux sport: à la fois vif et athlétique. La promotion de ce nouveau sport accaparait, à cette époque du moins, la vie de San Yu et les contacts qu’il entretenait avec le Ministère français des Sports laissaient entrevoir l’initiation du ping-tennis dans les écoles et les lycées au titre de la formation au tennis.

Ces contacts, je l’ai su ultéerieurement, n’ont pas étés finalisés.

On dit couramment que la pratique d’un sport permet de dévoiler le caractère. La façon de jouer de San Yu témoignait d’un enthousiasme débordant et d’une rare générosité qui, me semble-t-il, s’étaient éloignés du sillage de la peinture dont il parlait peu: quasi méconnu et pratiquement sans ressources, il gardait une grande gentillesse et l’attitude d’un prince dans son comportement et ses propos. Je me souviens d’un voile de tristesse dans son regard mais aussi de ses rires brusques, francs et joviaux. Les chemins de la vie ont fait que nous nous sommes perdus de vue en 1959 et c’est tout récemment que j’ai appris avec un grand plaisir la reconnaissance marquante qui s’attache dorénavant à son oeuvre.

Fait à Tours, le 3 Novembre 1999
Jean Claude Drouin

Natacha Levy


I remember Sanyu sitting alone at the back of La Coupole with an empty cup of coffee in front of him. Very often we went to say hello, and he greeted us with such a nice smile: How are you today?

I remember Sanyu inviting us for real Chinese dinners. I wonder if I have had such good rice since!

I remember him saying with a very special smile: I have a date tonight. Can I pass by your home and borrow a bottle of vodka?

I remember how excited he was when we offered to organize an exhibition of his paintings at our house. He started immediately to design an invitation and to think who he could invite.

I remember how we returned all his paintings after the exhibition and before the summer holidays because I was worried something might happen to the paintings in our absence.

And I remember coming back a month later to learn he was gone, no more in life. It was so strange and so sad.

I try to think how happy he would be seeing the exhibitions, the books and selling his paintings for such a big price...


Je me souviens de Sanyu, assis, seul au fond de La Coupole, une tasse de café vide devant lui. Fréquemment nous allions vers lui pour le saluer. Il nous accueillait avec un extraordinaire sourire : comment allez vous aujourd'hui ?

Je me souviens de Sanyu nous invitant à de vrais diners chinois. Je me demande si depuis j'ai mangé du riz aussi délicieux que le sien.

Je me souviens de lui, disant avec un sourire mystérieux : j'ai un rendez vous ce soir, puis je passer chez vous emprunter une bouteille de vodka ?

Je me souviens de son excitation lorsque nous lui avons proposé d'exposer ses peintures chez nous. Il a immédiatement commencé à dessiner l'invitation et à faire la liste des gens à inviter.

Je me souviens qu'après l'exposition et avant les vacances d'été nous lui avons rapporté tous ses tableaux ; car j'avais peur qu'il leur arrive pendant le mois d'Aôut en notre absence, quelque malheur.

Et, je me souviens ,lorsque nous sommes rentrés, un mois plus tard, avoir appris qu'il n'était plus la : il était mort ; c'était étrange et si triste...

J'essaie d'imaginer sa joie de voir toutes les expositions, tous les livres sur lui et aussi de voir la valeur de ses tableaux qui monte, qui monte.


Serge Tcherepnin


He showed me his paintings and explained that his art was a perpetual quest for the perfect line, never artificial, moving and sinuous lines which seem to breathe and move with a life of their own.

Chang Yian

I met San Yu in Paris in 1956, late fall. As a recipient of a J. H. Whitney Fellowship, I was pursuing further piano study and performance opportunities in Europe after getting out of Julliard School in New York.

Expatriates tend to congregate, and in Paris, Kuo Yu-shou, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the 20s and subsequently was appointed cultural officer by the Chinese Nationalist government played host at many parties to which I was invited. After all, although I was living in the U.S., the Chinese connection was his long acquaintance with my parents. There I met San Yu, among other painters, musicians, students, etc. from China. I later realized that he was a problem to the community in that he was continually insolvent, though he had lived in Paris since the 20s.

He lived in the 14th Arrondissement, not far from where I was staying at the time, and used to visit me. We took long walks along the boulevards and Parc Monsouris. I could see he was an eccentric and a dreamer. He would talk to trees; he talked about “ping-tennis” a game he invented which he was sure would bring him a fortune. I dared not ask how he survived meantime, but I gathered he painted walls and did carpentering.

I was surprised when I visited his studio that it was clean and spacious. White walls were hung with his paintings and shelves held his ceramics. I was immediately struck by their singularity. It was obvious that every piece came from an unique vision, one at once childlike and sophisticated, playful yet profound.

One painting struck me particularly: a whimsical floral still-life, a white vase, flatly outlined against an aubergine background. I loved the way the sides of that vase were silhouetted.

Though I had never before purchased an art-work and was concerned how I would live out the year on my fellowship-grant, I was determined to own it. Seeing my interest, San Yu was happy to make the sale, and insisted on giving me another small painting, an almost abstract goldfish painting.

The following year, 1958, I returned to Paris. I remember he cooked a meal for me in his studio on a Bunsen-burner type of single gas jet, fishing out supplies from sacks which he said were remains of air-lifted supplies from Liberation days!

We spent New Year’s Eve 1958 at the Café Dome, watching people from the heated terrace. We were both rather depressed. He had never stopped dreaming of “making it big” on ping-tennis, but meanwhile I think it was getting more and more difficult for him to survive. Nobody bought his paintings. I don’t remember if that was the last time I saw San Yu.

Shortly after his death, I, by now married and back in New York, was notified that he had left me 2 paintings. I was really surprised and moved that he had remembered me in his last days.

When I received the Lotus painting, I was overwhelmed. It was so typical a San Yu, the restrained and delicate innocence of the flower stems, their stylized composition brought to me the impact of a man who absorbed the essence of the East and the West and made it his own.

As for the little dog in the chair, was he not trying to express his own wishes, to be that pet, a center of attention and in a state of well-being?