In 1869 Japan, a young woman escapes the confines of her arranged marriage by painting memories of the man she loves on mulberry paper. When her husband, a talented potter and government official, arranges for his next delivery of wares to Europe, she hides her painting in the shipment.
In France, a disenchanged young man works as a clerk at an import shop. When he opens the wooden crate from Japan, he discovers the brilliant watercolor of two lovers locked in an embrace under a plum tree. He steals it and hides it in his room only to become obsessed with the painting and its meaning.
Set near the new capital of Tokyo during the Meiji period and in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, The Painting is a richly imagined story of four people whose lives are delicately and powerfully entertwined: Ayoshi, the painter, pines for her lover as she dutifully attends to her husband; Ayoshi's husband, Hayashi, scarred by a deadly fire that almost killed him as a child, has his own well of secret yearnings; Jorgen, crippled by the war and tormented by his own lost love, buries himself in work at the Paris shop; and the shop owner's sister, Natalia, determined to fight for the French cause, seeks Jorgen's help and shows him the true message of the painting.