Renowned as the first woman in China to paint in the Western style, Pan Yuliang was a contemporary Chinese painter that contributed remarkable modernist works that depict progressive ideas, despite sparking criticism and controversy during her time.
Her early life
Yuliang experienced a lot of setbacks in her early life. She was born in 1895 in Yangzhou as Chen Xiuqing, and she was later renamed Zhang Yuliang by her maternal uncle who adopted her after her parents’ early passing. Shortly after being taken in by her uncle, he eventually sold her to a brothel where she was raised to become a prostitute.
There, she caught the eye of a wealthy customs official Pan Zanhua who bought her freedom. Zanhua married Yuliang as his second wife and helped finance her education. Upon moving to Shanghai, she studied at the Shanghai Art School, where she studied painting with Wang Jiyuan. Pan became one of the first female graduates of the Shanghai Art Academy, overcoming numerous challenges that modern women faced at that time.
After graduating, she went to Lyon and Paris for further art education in oil painting and sculpture. And in 1925, she won the prestigious Rome Scholarship to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, Italy. After receiving great recognition and success in Europe, she returned to China to teach art at China’s most famous art schools.
Her unwavering commitment and dedication to her art resulted in outstanding achievements that had a revolutionary impact on Chinese society.
Hailed as the first woman in China to paint using the Western-style, she introduced it to her home country upon getting the opportunity to teach. She also contributed many remarkable modernist artworks that depict liberal ideas.
She was highly influenced by French art and combined traditional Chinese art style with the West. Most of her paintings’ subjects were female nude that represents vitality, healthy beauty, and maternity of women, directly advocating against women being treated as objects. Thus, she has brought the style and introduced it to China, most especially when she began teaching.
But due to the socio-political situation in China during Yuliang’s time, her artworks faced severe criticism and controversy because of their content and the artist’s background. A lot of people didn’t support the idea of a woman, who had been a former prostitute, teaching life drawing. Thus, she left for France where she stayed until the end of her life.
Legacy and honors
She is known to have won two honorary awards. In 1926, her works won the Gold Prize at the Roman International Art Exhibition, and in 1959, she won the Paris Gold Prize and the Belgium Silver Prize. Her works are even exhibited internationally, especially in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Greece.
Furthermore, the Anhui Museum holds a wide collection of Pan’s works. They include 4,000 pieces, 3.892 sketches, 393 ink paintings, 361 oil paintings, 13 block prints, 6 engravings, and 4 sculptures. It is said that only ten of her oil paintings are left on the market which just goes to show how valuable her works are.
In 1984, her story was told in the novel, A Soul Haunted by Painting by Shih Nan, and was later adapted as a Chinese film of the same name, which was released in 1994 starring the actress Gong Li as Pan. In 2004, her life story was reenacted in a drama called, Painting Soul, where she was played by Michelle Reis. Her story even inspired an opera titled, The Female Painter from the Brothel.
In 2008, author Jennifer Cody Epstein wrote The Painter from Shanghai, which was based on the painter’s life. It was translated into fourteen languages and it was acclaimed all over the world. Another author, Marie Laure de Shazer, who specialized in the Chinese language, also wrote a book, Pan Yu Liang, La Manet de Shanghai, about Pan’s life in China and France.