Chances are you’ve never heard of Sanyu. The Chinese-born artist spent much of his life in Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with avant-garde luminaries and died, lonely and poverty-stricken, in 1966. For decades he remained virtually unknown, an art-historical footnote at best.

Today, he has been dubbed the “Chinese Matisse.” Nine of his works have sold for more than $20 million at auction, with his record almost double that. He has become a market juggernaut despite the fact that, until now, few books in English even mention his name. A new two-volume publication by Rita Wong, comprising a biography and a catalogue raisonné of his oil paintings, aims to address this omission and cement his place in the canon.

Sanyu was born in 1895 in Sichuan province to a well-to-do family in the silk business. Their affluence allowed him to pursue art, first with tutors at home, then by enrolling at the Shanghai Art Academy, and finally by traveling abroad.

Two Pink Nudes, painted by Sanyu in 1929.

After a brief stint in Tokyo, in 1920, he made his way to Paris. During his first decade in France—in the heady days of les années folles—he lived a life of leisure as a dandy-aesthete. While his Chinese compatriots in Paris were often frugal students living off government stipends, Sanyu regularly received money from his brother back home. The sense of freedom and prosperity was exhilarating. He “led a carefree and very Parisian life,” according to Wong, “lounging in cafés, where he observed and sketched the people around him, making trips to the countryside, and playing tennis.”

The 1929 economic downturn turned off the faucet of funds. “Would you be so kind as to help me out in the amount of five hundred francs, to keep me alive,” Sanyu wrote his friend Henri-Pierre Roché. “Right now I have no more than ten francs in my pocket.”

From 1929 until 1932, Roché also acted as Sanyu’s dealer and was responsible for the artist’s turn to oil painting. Sanyu embraced his new medium with zeal. Of the 321 oil paintings in the catalogue raisonné, one-third date from these three years. Sanyu painted delicate still lifes and abstracted nudes in a spare palette of black, white, and pink. The minimal, even meditative, quality of these works was indebted both to European modernism, with its reduction of form, and the poignant simplicity of the Chinese literati tradition.

Sanyu’s 1932 work Six Horses.

Around the same time, Sanyu attempted to fuse Eastern and Western cultures in a different way. He invented a sport he called “ping-tennis,” a combination of Ping-Pong and tennis—proto-pickleball, one might say. Initially it attracted extensive press coverage. Sanyu was convinced it had the makings of a craze and a financial windfall. “This is my future life,” he wrote to a friend. “I am sure that I can make money from ping-tennis.”

He had hoped to launch the sport at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but the games would never take place, scuppered by the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war, Sanyu’s ambitions for ping-tennis brought him to New York, where he stayed for two years, sharing a loft with the photographer Robert Frank.

By that time, he had given up art to devote himself entirely to the sport. Upon his return to Paris, however, he resumed painting with renewed energy. His works from the 1950s—many of which rank among the most important in his oeuvre—reveal a new confidence, with thick, bold lines; rich colors; and a more assertive simplicity.

While Sanyu’s work flourished, his circumstances remained bleak. He became more lonely and withdrawn and appeared increasingly eccentric. “Contrast the privileges of his youth with the abject poverty he suffered in the final decades of his life, when he would go hungry for days before a painting sold and when all hopes of success as an artist had vanished, forcing him to find work in Chinese restaurants designing menus, fixing furniture, and painting walls, and one begins to glimpse the dichotomies and polarities that marked Sanyu’s life and shaped his art,” Wong writes.

Yet just as extraordinary as Sanyu’s fall from grace is his incredible posthumous rise. Wong has been a key player in this latter story. Now the world’s leading authority on Sanyu, she was also essential to creating his market, having first come across his work as head of Sotheby’s Taiwan in the 1990s. At that time, Taipei was emerging as a robust new art-market center, and Wong was looking for genres of art distinct from the ink paintings sold in Hong Kong.

In 1992 she formed a new sales category that mixed overseas Chinese oil painters with the Taiwanese oil painters who were already in high demand. The following year, Sanyu’s Five Nudes sold for $150,000 to mega-collector Pierre Chen, who purchased the work on Wong’s recommendation. The support of famous Taiwanese collectors such as Chen lured new buyers, pushing up prices.

Sanyu’s Five Nudes, painted in the 1950s.

In 1996, the editor of Taiwan’s Collection magazine called Sanyu “the cash cow of Sotheby’s.” Soon after, Wong left Sotheby’s to devote herself full-time to the artist’s catalogue raisonné, creating comprehensive guides to his drawings, prints, watercolors, and oil paintings. As the first catalogue raisonné of a Chinese artist, it would prove enormously impactful—both in securing exhibitions at Western museums and in boosting Sanyu’s market.

By the early 2000s, Sotheby’s and Christie’s had closed their Taipei salesrooms, shifting attention to Hong Kong, the pre-eminent market hub in Asia and the gateway to an even more promising market: mainland China. Christie’s took the oil paintings that had proved so successful in Taipei, including Sanyu’s, and integrated them into its Hong Kong sales. Soon, a wide swath of Asian buyers were collecting Sanyu’s works.

In 2007, the main Taipei gallery promoting Sanyu, Lin & Keng Gallery opened a branch in Beijing. In 2011, Five Nudes was auctioned again, this time for $16.5 million, selling to a Korean collector and giving Chen an almost 11,000 percent rate of return. Private museums in mainland China began displaying paintings by Sanyu, and at a major 2017 exhibition in Taipei, crowds at the museum gift shop scooped up mugs, scarves, and pillowcases emblazoned with Sanyu’s art. Soon after, a Sanyu-themed French restaurant opened in the city.

In 2019, Five Nudes sold yet again—now for $39 million.

Two versions of Sanyu’s chrysanthemum still lifes.

Wong’s biography only alludes to this posthumous reassessment. The book instead keeps its focus trained on Sanyu’s enigmatic life, providing a rich and intriguing array of clues. It sheds light on his family background; his relationships with other Chinese expatriate artists in France, most of whom returned to China and assumed important posts in art and politics; his marriage to a Frenchwoman; the critical reception of his work in France, the Netherlands, and America; his brushes with xenophobia; the circumstances that led him to send 44 paintings to Taiwan in advance of a trip he never took.

By chasing so many leads, the book brings new dimensionality to a time and place—Paris in the early 20th century—that is so well trodden it has become almost cliché. It shows how culture emerges not from a single set of historical circumstances but from a polyphony of influences and perspectives. The story it tells bridges East and West, belonging to both and to neither—like Sanyu himself.

Natasha Degen is the chair of Art Market Studies at F.I.T. and a contributor to publications including The New York Times, the Financial Times, The New Yorker, and Artforum. She is the author of Merchants of Style: Art and Fashion After Warhol