The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Jennifer Cody Epstein bases her first novel on the life of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese woman sold into prostitution by her uncle at fourteen, who then became one of the first important woman painters of the twentieth century.
Epstein tells Yuliang’s story well and with wonderful details that pull us in and allow us to understand the life of a young Chinese woman, orphaned, then sold into a life that could be both opulent and demeaning. Yuliang’s early life is spent learning the ways of satisfying men and she is taught well by her mentor and friend Jinling who takes her under her wing and treats her with both compassion and love. When Jinling is abruptly and unexpectedly murdered by one of her clients, Yuliang ascends to the position of top girl and is taken up by a local magistrate, Pan Zunhua. He takes Yuliang away from the flower house and establishes her as his concubine, since he is already married to someone else.
Zunhua soon recognizes Yuliang’s artistic abilities and encourages her to learn more and work on improving her drawing and painting skills. This leads to an opportunity for Yuliang to live and study in Paris where she is recognized as an emerging talent in the post-impressionist movement. Though critics recognized her as a thoroughly talented and accomplished figure painter, she was often criticized for her intimate depictions of the female nude, particularly when she returned to China where the public felt much less accommodating toward her subject matter.
Yuliang lived in exciting times, both in China and Europe and The Painter from Shanghai paints the fictional portrait of her life with vivid detail and resplendent language. I enjoyed reading this book; it was similar in many ways to Memoirs of a Geisha, though I think personally that Cody Epstein does a better job telling the story of Yuliang, so it’s definitely worth a look.