Republican Shanghai was a renowned art capital. This article is based on a large-scale digital mapping project of the residential locations of 1,349 Shanghai artists. We analysed the transformative spatial distribution patterns of artists in relation to the city's social and urban conditions, and developed an artists’ habitation approach to elucidating the issues of Republican-period Shanghai urban and art history from the perspective of Chinese cosmopolitanism. We mapped areas of high artist concentration and identified a higher percentage of artists residing in the concessions (compared with the Shanghai general population) and the incremental convergence of art clusters in the concessions. We argue that the concessions provided a favourable environment for cultural diversity and the ungovernable, elite spirit of the literati tradition. The mainstream Shanghai art practices, known as haipai, were modern, as they were rooted in the urban modernity of the concessions and embodied Chinese cosmopolitanism.