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The Painter from Shanghai    by Jennifer Cody Epstein order for
Painter from Shanghai
by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Order:  USA  Can
W. W. Norton, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Jennifer Cody Epstein has brought a very interesting story to light in her first novel, The Painter from Shanghai. Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), a Chinese artist trained in Paris, left behind over 4000 works of art, many of them studies of the female body. For a Chinese artist, and a woman at that, to attempt to show such works in China was scandalous to her people. She must have been a formidable woman to be able to turn from traditional painting to incorporate Western ideas. And as we learn from the novel, her personal life was also very unusual. She was orphaned at a young age, sold into prostitution, and subsequently rescued by a rich scholar-merchant who allowed her to have art training and eventually to study in Paris.

Though little is known about her life, Epstein fleshes it out and enlightens us about the time in which she lived. China was just learning Western ways, and some took them on immediately and exclusively, while others remained firm in tradition. At the same time, the internal politics of the country heavily affected everyone: revolutionary government replacing puppet rulers, the rise of Communism, and the menace of Japan. Through all this, Yuliang manages to survive, both personally and as an artist. Epstein vividly portrays Yuliang's time in Paris, where she literally hungered so she could keep on studying. Epstein's descriptions of what it is like to imagine and execute a drawing bring us close to the artist and her struggle to achieve her vision. Too bad the book's editors neglected to include at least one of the artist's works - it would have been very helpful.

Yuliang was certainly an unusually strong woman to achieve what she did, given what she had to fight in her environment. And Epstein has thoughtfully constructed a plausible story-behind-the-story that genuinely explores not only post-Impressionism of the East and West and expatriate life but more importantly, the role of females in that particular area and time. Bravo!

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