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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.
On public display for the first time will be 19 stunning life-sized, 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. 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.
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.
Photo: The Empress Dowager Cixi in sedan chair surrounded by eunuchs; China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904; Glass plate negative; Image credit: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC-GR 261
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