"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Friday, June 7, 2019


The Empress Dowager Cixi 

This 1903 portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi  by  1903 Katharine A. Carl hangs in the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery.

Arguably the most powerful empress in Chinese history. Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced tsz xyi) dominated the court and policies of China's last imperial dynasty for nearly fifty years. She entered the Qing dynasty court as a low-ranking consort or wife, of the Xianfeng emperor and bore his heir, The Tongzhi emperor. When Tongzhi ascended the throne as a child, Cixi became an empress dowager and an unusually powerful coregent. After Tongzhi died without an heir. Cixi installed her four-year-old nephew as the Guangxu emperor. She thus consolidated her power and served as the de facto leader of the vast Qing empire from 1861 until her death in 1908.

This portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi captures some of the complexities of her story. Her benign face contradicts Western newspaper reports that declared she had “the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.” Cixi gained this reputation after supporting a violent uprising that took control of the foreign legations in Beijing in 1900. Two years later she changed her agenda by embracing modernization and fraternizing with foreigners. As a way to polish her image outside China, Cixi invited American artist Katharine A. Carl to create this commanding portrait for display at the 1904 World's Fair held in St. Louis, Missouri. In a strategic diplomatic move, Cixi had this portrait presented to President Theodore Roosevelt, who in turn had it transferred to the Smithsonian. -- Sackler Gallery

To western eyes, perhaps the most exotic feature of this portrait are the empress's 6-inch fingernails and jade nail protectors.

The elaborate camphor wood frame was built under the personal supervision of the empress. See this video of the frame being installed in the Sackler.

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