Among the first wave of Chinese artists of the Paris School during the 1920s, Sanyu was a modernist master known for his nude studies and calligraphic style. His paintings are highly sought-after by collectors all over the world today, and some even refer to the artist as the “Chinese Matisse.” This was not always the case, however, as Sanyu’s works were largely overlooked during his lifetime.
Sanyu was born in 1895 to a wealthy family in Nanchong, Sichuan. He learned to paint from his father, Chang Shufang, and practiced calligraphy under the tutelage of Zhao Xi. He traveled to Japan in 1919 and then in 1921, inspired by the wave of students traveling to France under the government-sponsored program initiated by Cai Yuanpei, Sanyu departs for Paris to study art with the support of his brother Junmin. It was at this time that Sanyu began his love-affair with bohemian Paris. He thrived at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Unlike his compatriots, Sanyu did not return to his home country after finishing his studies but instead, remained in Paris. He experimented with reinterpretations of traditional Chinese art, developing a unique, cross-cultural aesthetic. He favored nudes, flowers and animals, with paintings that employed lighter colors and soft tones.