Peabody Essex Museum/Freer Sackler, 261 pp., $60.00 (paper) (distributed by Yale University Press)
An enormous portrait of the Chinese empress dowager Cixi, arguably the most powerful woman in Chinese history, stands in the entrance hall of the Sackler Gallery as an introduction to “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912,” an exhibition of more than two hundred objects from the Palace Museum in Beijing that marks the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China. Painted by the American artist Katharine Carl, the portrait was sent with great ceremony to be displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and eventually entered the collection of the Smithsonian.
American journalists of the time reported on Carl’s work on the portrait in Beijing, as well as its journey to St. Louis by train and steamship via Shanghai, Honolulu, and San Francisco, accompanied by an honor guard of one hundred attendants. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser of Honolulu described the excitement surrounding its arrival that May, observing that until then, few had “any real conception of the features of the woman who has become famous in modern history.” Less charitably, the New-York Daily Tribune mentioned in a feature on the artist that the empress dowager had been accused of “most of the sins” in the Ten Commandments, referring to rumors that she had, among other things, committed murder in order to seize the throne. Other Western newspapers described Cixi as “a she tiger” when referring to her unprecedented domination of the Qing dynasty’s court and policies since 1861.
Carl had received the commission for the portrait at the suggestion of Sarah Pike Conger, the wife of the American ambassador, Edwin Hurd Conger. The Congers were eager to improve US–China relations after the damage caused by the anti-foreign Boxer Uprising of 1900, which the empress dowager had supported. By developing a friendship with Cixi after it had been suppressed and the court was able to return to the palace in 1902, Mrs. Conger aided her husband’s diplomatic efforts to protect and promote American commercial interests in China. She convinced Cixi to grant Carl—who was in China to visit her brother Francis, an officer of the Chinese Maritime Customs service and the Chinese vice commissioner of the St. Louis fair—the privilege of an audience and eventually multiple sittings over nearly a year as a way to improve the empress dowager’s negative international image.
Despite her celebrity—or notoriety—few in this country today know much about Cixi or any other imperial women from Chinese history. The exhibition’s curators, Daisy Yiyou Wang, the Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, explain in the catalog that China’s last…
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