Narrative.  When Sanyu, the Chinese Matisse, painted on The Pilgrim

Narrative. When Sanyu, the Chinese Matisse, painted on The Pilgrim

A hundred years ago, the Chinese painter Sanyu set down his luggage in Paris, the capital of modernism. Although he died in obscurity and poverty, his works today sell for several million euros around the world. In 2020, a Chinese collector acquired two nudes, signed with his name and drawn…on a copy of Le Pèlerin. A crazy story!

“Dear newspaper, could you help me verify the authenticity of this page of the Pilgrim? A Chinese painter drew a painting on it. And it is now worth 5 million euros.” This message, received on the Pèlerin Facebook page on October 20, is enough to whet the curiosity of the journalist that I am. Written in clumsy French and signed “王莉”, it is accompanied by photos of a copy of the newspaper dated 1928. I ask our librarian, Catherine Thauziès, who immediately immerses herself in the archives where are gathered in several libraries , the one hundred and fifty years of history of the title. In the editorial office, she alone holds the key.

“1928, here we come!” » The photos sent by our mysterious interlocutor correspond to the issue of May 6, 1928. I hastened to confirm this information, impatient to know more about his surprising request. His response was quick: “Welcome to Haikou, China, a collector will receive you. My name is Sara, one of his friends. » Sara sends me a document presenting several paintings by a certain Chang Yu.

In June 1920, euphoria reigned in the capital, after the harsh trials of the war. It's the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. Sanyu sets down his luggage in Montparnasse, which has become the district of artists who are abandoning Montmartre where the rent continues to increase. He enrolled in the Beaux-Arts but never seems to have set foot there. Over an academic background, I understand that he prefers the free and popular spirit of the Grande Chaumière workshops. He drew there alongside Modigliani, Giacometti, Foujita, etc. Among his favorite themes, the nude, still life and the horse, a subject very present since the 7th century in Chinese art.

Very quickly, however, he left the pencil for the brush and ink, which he mastered. His method surprises and attracts attention. Unlike other contemporary Chinese painters, Sanyu has never completely westernized himself. He borrows and interprets Western themes with traditional expression and the dexterity of a Chinese calligrapher. And Linjuan Zhang, with whom I come into contact, explains to me that, according to her, the success of Matisse – himself passionate about calligraphy – would have given Sanyu confidence, because “Matisse proves that Chinese art combined with Western art can be the source of success.”

But Sanyu will never be recognized during his lifetime. He died in August 1966, asphyxiated by a gas leak in his workshop, rue de la Sablière. His belongings are abandoned on the sidewalk, his works sold by the crates at public auction. His name only resurfaced at the end of the 1980s, in Taiwan, when a student finally became interested in his work. Since then, the National History Museum in Taipei has worked to collect his work. Its notoriety first reached China. In France, in 2004, the Guimet museum in Paris dedicated a first exhibition to him. Since then, his popularity has continued to rise and collectors are snapping up his works. In 2019, a Sanyu nude went to auction for 35.2 million euros. In 2020, another reached 29.4 million euros.

When writing the Pilgrim, in Montrouge, in December 2023, I continue to communicate with the collector through Sara. Communication is not easy: he lives in the Chinese time zone, Sara has just left Greece, where she was writing to me, to move to Austria. She doesn't speak French and the automatic translator is playing tricks on us. However, I understand that the collector insists that I visit him in Haikou… and offers to organize my stay! Taken aback by such a proposition, I can only politely decline.

A question always torments me: why did Sanyu choose to draw on a copy of the Pilgrim? I then came across the photo album of her last exhibition, in the spring of 1966, just before her death, organized at the home of a certain Natacha Lévy, presented as one of her friends. Is she still alive? Does she still have the same name? I search without really believing for his contact details in the white pages. There is no shortage of namesakes in Paris! I dial the first number. After a few seconds, we pick up. “Hello, I'm trying to reach Sanyu's friend.” A weak voice answers me. “It's me.” Neither one nor two, I make an appointment.

A few weeks later, here I am at the gate of an artist's house, hidden in a quiet street in the capital. As soon as I walk through the door, I find myself thrown into another time, half a century earlier. Exotic plants, paintings, a huge library of art books. Natacha, passionate about painting, met Sanyu through her father-in-law, an art lover. Very quickly, she became friends with this charismatic and sociable man. At over 95 years old, this elegant woman keeps her memories intact. “Sanyu liked to discuss art, have a drink, stay for hours in the café drawing. But he was not a trader. » Natacha hoped that the exhibition, organized at her home, would help her sell her paintings. The result was disappointing. She says that the artist once asked her if she could “lend” him a bottle of vodka for a date.

In China, scholars offered their paintings. Art could only be amateur and free: selling works was almost an insult to Sanyu, deeply imbued with these traditional values. One of his friends, Albert Dahan, wrote in a letter: “He was so generous, I didn't dare tell him that I liked his paintings, he would have given them to me. » Sanyu didn't like contracts or constraints. A wealthy merchant would have approached him to make him famous. But Sanyu would not have executed his order while squandering the money advanced… In rage, the merchant decided to instead support an unknown person, the Japanese Foujita. The latter would become one of the most famous representatives of the School of Paris.

At Natacha Lévy, I consult the four catalogs raisonnés established by Rita Wong, an expert who, for more than thirty years, has cataloged Sanyu's works throughout the world. She also dedicated an online database to it. A gold mine! However, I cannot find the two drawings I am looking for, although I discover oil paintings with similar shapes, on a white background. They are part of a well-known collection from the 1950s and 1960s, exhibited at the Taipei Museum.

The weeks pass, I immerse myself in the booklet by the academic Linjuan Zhang. A chapter on the nude catches my attention. In 1927, the new Chinese government ended the ban on drawing from life models and the nude became a learning exercise. That same year, Sanyu developed his practice and returned to ink. “He simplifies the nude to accentuate the essence of the body, he does not represent a face, the feet and hands are avoided,” it is written. Sanyu painted nudes until 1932 and did not resume them until 1945. “Sanyu painted what fascinated him, the bodies of women. It was perhaps afterwards, his life becoming more difficult, that he painted other thing”, writes the painter Zao Wou-ki in a contribution to the work Sanyu: body writing. That year, Sanyu divorced Marcelle, whom he had married in 1928, his older brother died and the family silk business that allowed him to live went bankrupt. He then falls into poverty.

These chronological data allow me to explain the difference between the dates of the works: those drawn on the Pilgrim in 1928 and the ink paintings, thirty years later. Everything is gradually becoming clearer…

Through Linjuan Zhang's intercession, I finally managed to make contact with Rita Wong. I send him photos of the works drawn on Pilgrim . It's time to unravel their mystery. After days of waiting, the answer finally arrives. Thunderclap. Stunned in front of my screen, I first believe it was a translation error. I take it three times to read the sentence: “These works are counterfeits.” How is it possible?

“Given the rising value of the artist, counterfeits are becoming better and better,” explains Rita Wong. The collector, “Mr. Zhang” whose identity Sara revealed to me, lives in China and owns thousands of works. He claims to have bought the two drawings at auction, in a lot of around ten works collected by Wang Jiyuan, a friend of Sanyu to whom the painter made a donation at the end of the 1940s. After eighty years under dust, they appeared on the market in 2020.

The collector caught wind of the rumor of a possible counterfeit: “These are questions that always arise.” Especially when no one knows the existence of a work and it mysteriously emerges when prices soar. This is why he was so keen that we authenticate the pages of the diary! But prove that a Pilgrim date of May 6, 1928 does not in any way certify the signature of the work… The information collected throughout my investigation seems to give credence to his arguments. On the other hand, Rita Wong knows Sanyu's work better than anyone. So, fake or real, these sketches on newspaper? I no longer know what to believe, half disappointed in the enthusiasm of seeing my diary associated with the glory of a painter; half satisfied to have discovered – and made our readers discover – the destiny of Sanyu, an artist between two cultures.

Log book

Journalist in charge of digital at Le Pèlerin, I am curious and on the lookout for the messages that our readers send us on the site and social networks. When I opened Sara's, I never would have imagined that it would take me all the way to China… or almost!


  • A sketch If it is authentic, the drawing Nude with Bent Legs on Pilgrim would be the origin of two major paintings by Sanyu. One is in the National Museum in Taipei (Taiwan), the other was sold in 2019 at auction for the sum of 198 million Hong Kong dollars.
  • 49 paintings The largest collection of Sanyu's works (49 paintings and 3 sketches) is at the National Museum in Taipei. The restoration of part of these paintings was taken care of by the foundation created by Robert Frank, photographer and close friend of Sanyu.
  • Two exhibitions Like Sanyu, dozens of Chinese artists came to France in the 20th century, including Zao Wou-Ki and T'ang Haywen at the end of the 1940s. The first is exhibited until May 26 at the Franciscaines of Deauville (Calvados). ), the second until June 17 at the Guimet museum in Paris.

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