Sanyu became completely immersed in the artistic circles of the City of Light, spending much time in the streets and cafés of Montparnasse, where he had ample opportunities to mix with other artists for a free exchange of opinions and ideas. A close look will reveal that his sketches of human figures share quite a few characteristics with those of modernist artists like Matisse, Modigliani, and Kees van Dongen. And since Sanyu had an additional background in traditional Chine s e l ands c ape pa int ing and calligraphy, and was more than familiar with painting on paper, his work during his early years in France displays a width of style and breadth of vision unusual in such a young artist. Apart from sketching and drawing, Sanyu also occasionally produced watercolors, always using color sparingly and often simply applying pale smidgens of paint to finished sketches as a way of accentuating the bodies’ contours, or adding rouge to women’s faces and tints of color to their clothes. All in all, his watercolors show a simple elegance and charm that has a very “French” feel to them.
Drawings and sketches constitute the staple of Sanyu’s works on paper. Most of these were completed during the 1920s and 1930s, and according to estimates there are more than a thousand of them. After making the acquaintance of Sanyu in 1929, French author and art collector Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959) bought 111 of the artist’s oil paintings and 600 of his sketches over the next two or three years, becoming Sanyu’s most important sponsor during this seminal phase of his career. When Roché died in 1959, his widow put up an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris, at which art dealer Jean-Claude Riedel bought 80 of Sanyu’s oil paintings and a considerable number of his sketches. Many works of Riedel’s collection later found their way into the Taiwan art market in a roundabout way.
During the early 1930s, another patron of Sanyu’s was the Dutch-born composer Johan Franco (1908-1988), giving the artist much financial support and organizing three exhibitions of his work in the Netherlands for him. In 1995, Franco’s collection was sold at auction at Sotheby’s Taipei, featuring several oil paintings and a range of works on paper, including 11 watercolors, 10 sketches, and 20 prints of varying sizes.
In his writings, Antoine Chen mentions that in 1981 in Paris he once saw some seven or eight hundred of Sanyu’ s sketches and watercolors from the 1930s. Fascinated by the artist’s work, he began to collect his works on paper, and in the following year he held an exhibition at Print Artist Gallery in Taipei, titled “Sanyu Sketches and Watercolors from the 1930s.” Most of the works shown originally came from the collection of Sanyu’s friend Michel Habart, who at one time owned several hundred of Sanyu’s watercolors and sketches. With the exception of Sanyu’s works on paper that form part of the Taipei National Museum of History’s collection, the ones brought to Taiwan by Antoine Chen were the first to appear on the Taiwan art market. Later, art galleries like Mingmen, Jinling, and Apollo also began to import Sanyu’s sketches and watercolors, displaying them in small exhibitions.