Archived article

The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I don’t suppose many of the potential audience for this new historical novel will have heard of Pan Yuliang. I can’t say I really had - actually, I had, but I had to Google the name and see the paintings before I could put the name and the paintings together.

The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
The Painter From Shanghai, Jennifer Cody Epstein (W. W. Norton & Company, March 2008)

She was a Chinese artist active from the mid-20s onwards, painting in a largely Western post-impressionist (“Cezannesque”, says the blurb) style, concentrating on—to the great horror of many of her compatriots of the day—female nudes, many of them self-portraits. She was orphaned, sold into a brothel, rescued by a wealthy official who made her his second wife, and ended up—without him—in Paris.

It is quite a story, and now it is a novel: The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein. It’s quite a good novel, interesting and moving, evocative and well-researched. Pan makes a good protagonist: prostitute to painter is quite a transition. The story is also a propos, as Chinese art comes to the forefront of the world’s art market: knowing something about of the pioneers of Chinese oils and the tensions between Chinese and Western influences is useful and illuminating.

The Painter From Shanghai would also make a good movie.

The problem is that the real Pan keeps on getting in way. The novel hews to historical fact as much as possible, but much of course has been made up. One continually wonders how much is real and how much dramatized. Most of the other characters—painters, academics, officials—are also historical figures, some quite well-known, and one also wonders how much of their portrayal is based in fact.

The result is that The Painter From Shanghai sits at the intersection of biography and fiction, a place which I personally find somewhat uncomfortable.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.