The Painter From Shanghai


Title: The Painter From Shanghai
Author: Jennifer Cody Epstien
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. 2008
Number of pages: 406
Rating: 3.8 out of 5

Resembling an Impressionistic painting itself, only drawn in words, is this lovely, imaginative work from Lisa Epstein. It gives us the portrait of Pan Yuliang, a famous painter from China, of whom I was woefully unaware until reading this novel about her.

It reminded me in many ways of Memoirs of A Geisha because I was brought into the eastern culture of China as well as the brothels there. When Yuliang was a child, her uncle sold her to a house of prostitutes; she had imagined that she would follow her mother’s footsteps as an accomplished artist in embroidery. With insurmountable courage, Yuliang learns to survive in this difficult life even falling in love with one of the girls, Jinling.

Perhaps fortunately for her, she is rescued when tax inspector Pan Zanhua falls in love with her and takes her away from that environment. Pan Yuliang discovers that she can draw, that she has a passion for art, and she overcomes even more obstacles to become a student at the Beaux Arts in Paris.

While on many counts she was a revered artist during her lifetime, there were those who criticized her for the nude portraits that she painted. Curious as to what her paintings were like, I found two which are pictured below:


This is one of the many she painted with the subject of women and their baths. Then, when I read further in the novel I found a passage written after an encounter with her lover, Xudun, which I believe pertains to this painting:

painting 2

“Instead, she forces her focus to the canvas before her. She lets her unmade decisions, her confused affections, her unfinished letter (Beloved husband) hover beyond her thoughts, like white moths tapping at her happiness. She will  think about it all later.  After the painting’s painted. And after it’s dried, wrapped, delivered to the salon. After she meets Xudun again in one week, back at the Cafe de Cluny, and has had a chance to think away  from these paint-thinner fumes.

For today, there is just this: her new-old skin. Her blank canvas, Mirror Girl, watching her with languid interest. Arms folded behind her head, Yulian takes in the lazy eyes, the flushed cheeks. The sated flesh.  Humming to herself, she reaches for her palette. She will, she decides paint herself just like this: in her lush chair, her skin the color of a summer sunset. A triad of color:p each and gold and rose pink. A neutral violet for unity and control-qualities she’ll examine, for today, on the canvas alone. (p. 332)

I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayal of Yuliang’s life as an artist, as well as a woman. It always encourages me to see how the pain one endures can be turned into something good.

“Has it ever occurred to you that our wounds are what drive us to create?…After all, loss in one arena compels us to compensate in others. Think about the senses. The way loss of sight leads to heightened senses of smell, touch and hearing for the blind. What if the same is true of the creative process?  What if those who’ve lost something compensate for it in their work? In that case their damage helps them. It’s what compels them to create.” (p. 251)

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:
Tuesday, June 2nd: The Literate Housewife Review

Wednesday, June 3rd: Book-a-Rama

Thursday, June 4th: Book Nut

Monday, June 8th: She is Too Fond of Books

Tuesday, June 9th: S. Krishna’s Books

Wednesday, June 10th: Becky’s Book Reviews

Thursday, June 11th: Redlady’s Reading Room

Monday, June 15th: Dolce Bellezza

Tuesday, June 16th: Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, June 17th: A Work in Progress

Thursday, June 18th: Beth Fish Reads

Monday, June 22nd: Pop Culture Junkie

Tuesday, June 23rd: Do They Have Salsa in China?

Wednesday, June 24th: Bookworm with a View

Thursday, June 25th: So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

Friday, June 26th: Savvy Verse and Wit

Monday, June 29th: Nerd’s Eye View