“Power | Play” Explores China’s Empress Dowager on the World Stage

Stunning Portraits Reveal the Political Savvy of One of History’s Most Powerful Women
August 8, 2011
News Release

Media preview: Wednesday, Sept. 21; 11 a.m.–1 p.m.
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The life of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was anything but conventional. She rose in power from a low-ranking imperial concubine to Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing court, reigning as sovereign to more than 400 million people for more than 45 years. “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Sept. 24 through Jan. 29, 2012.

The exhibition presents 19 stunning photographic portraits of the Empress Dowager created from the Freer and Sackler Archives’ collection of original and unique glass negatives. The portraits reveal a ruler who, in an attempt to control her public persona, seized on the emerging technology of photography to shape her image on the world stage.

On public display for the first time, the life-sized portraits bring visitors face-to-face with one of history’s most powerful women. The high-resolution images are printed on large aluminum panels, a format that enables visitors to see a fascinating level of detail previously imperceptible in conventional prints.

The photographs were taken in the years following China’s Boxer Rebellion, when Cixi (pronounced TSUH-see) was held in low regard throughout the world. In 1903, she commissioned a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling (pronounced SYOON-leeng) to take meticulously staged studio portraits of her and her court, melding modern photography with traditional conventions of imperial portraiture.

Several of the photographs taken at the imperial Summer Palace outside of Beijing depict the Empress dressed as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Others depict her with attendants and eunuchs boating on a lake in theatrical costumes.

“One of the most striking things about the photographs is their theatricality,” said David Hogge, curator and head of the Freer and Sackler Archives. “Cixi created a unique aesthetic that mixed traditional Qing court styles with her own personal flair for theater, fashion and religious devotion. More than 100 years ago, she was strategically making these portraits to manage her image for various constituents—much as a politician would use a photo op today.”

Theater was a popular entertainment in the Qing court and a source of inspiration for the portraits’ dramatic stagings, each conveying powerful, symbolic messages intended for members of the imperial court, her subjects or foreign audiences.

Many of the portraits were created as gifts to diplomatic visitors or to other world leaders.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are a large, hand-tinted portrait sent to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 and a print presented to his daughter Alice on her visit to the court in 1905. Social occasions featuring Manchu princesses and women of the foreign diplomatic corps are also captured on film, illustrating the court’s carefully crafted diplomatic campaign to win the support of foreign powers.

Xunling’s original negatives were brought to the United States by his sister Deling, who used them to illustrate her best-selling books recounting her own experience as personal attendant to Cixi. Following her death in 1944, the negatives were purchased by the Freer and Sackler galleries. The collection of 36 original Xunling negatives is the largest outside the Palace Museum in Beijing and one of the most important holdings of early Chinese photographs by a Chinese photographer in North America.

The exhibition “Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court,” on view in the Sackler through Jan. 16, 2012, offers a complementary look at traditional Qing portraiture from the early-to-mid-18th century.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.

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Deborah Galyan

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