The Painter from Shanghai, by Jennifer Cody Epstein
The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel, by Jennifer Cody Epstein. W. W. Norton & Company (2008), Hardcover, 416 pages.
A moving novel re-imaging the life of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese woman who became a well-known artist in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century.
Pan Yuliang was a Chinese artist who gained acclaim in the twentieth century for her paintings. Her style is a mix of European Post-Impressionism and traditional Chinese styles. As a woman painter willing to paint nudes, she was unique and controversial in China. Little is actually known about her personal life beyond the fact that an uncle sold her into a brothel when her parents died. She was freed, married, and studied art in China and Europe. As the Japanese invasion of Shanghai loomed, she left to spend the rest of her life in Europe, where many of her works were created.
Jennifer Cody Epstein is an American woman with a background in international relations. She has lived and worked as a journalist in Asia and now lives with her family in New York City. When she saw Pan’s art and learned a little of her remarkable life, she began the extensive research that led to her novel. She delved deeply into the written sources which enabled her to place Pan’s story in the historical context of pre-World War II China. In creating a fictional version of her subject’s life, she relied on her paintings.
In some ways, then, Pan’s own brush was the strongest source I had. It helped me hear her voice (vibrant, rich, defiant, sad) and feel her passion, her singular determination to reach her goals.
The images—whether lush pears or lithely curved female bodies—spoke to unrepentant fascination with beauty; with female strength; with sexuality; with the often-fuzzy lines that delineate culture, nationality, morality. If her somber self-portraits (in only one I’ve seen is she actually, openly smiling) gave me a clue to her temperament, her vibrant palette and fanciful blendings of post-Impressionism and guohua (traditional Chinese watercolors) granted insight into her dreams, longings, her unique artistic eye.
With these sources, Epstein has brought Pan and those around her vividly to life. We see what it was like for Pan to live in a brothel and how it shaped her vision of sexuality and the female body. She also learned to distance herself from the men who bought her attention and to appreciate other women, especially her female lover. A local official freed her from prostitution and married her. Although they loved each other deeply, she could only be his second wife as he was already in an arranged marriage. Living for a time in Shanghai, Pan began to paint and attend art school. Her work was well received, but her devotion to her art and her nude painting distanced her somewhat from her husband. Both of them worried about her painting’s affect on his career. Years in Europe allowed her to perfect her art and to have an affair with a Chinese radical. She returned to China and her husband, but she was forced to live as a concubine in her husband’s home. Her paintings were attacked as violence between factions in China escalated. She left her husband and China, never to return.
Epstein does an excellent job of embedding Pan’s story in the historical events occurring in China in the years leading up World War II. China was ending its monarchy and various factions were competing for power with increasing violence. Epstein does not take sides, but presents positive characters who were Nationalists and Communists. She gives a wrenching description of Shanghai partying with the Japanese attack imminent. She writes the best kind of historical fiction, that is faithful to what can be known and imaginative in filling in the blanks. (See her views on historical fiction.)
I strongly recommend The Painter from Shanghai to all who like good historical fiction and to those interested in Chinese history.
A related history of the era covered in this book is Emperess Dowager Cixi, by Jung Chang, which I have read and reviewed.