Museum  August 28, 2018  Megan D Robinson

"Empresses of China’s Forbidden City" Brings Rare Treasures to the U.S.

Peabody Essex Museum

Empress Dowager Cixi with foreign envoys’ wives in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Leshou tang) in the Garden of Nurturing Harmony (Yihe yuan). Photographed by Yu Xunling (1874–1943), Guangxu period, 1903–05, print from glass-plate negative, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.13 SC-GR-249. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, purchase.

Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is the first ever international exhibition to explore female power and influence during China’s last dynasty.

© The Palace Museum

Drinking Tea from Yinzhen’s Twelve Ladies. Court painters, Beijing, possibly including Zhang Zhen (active late 17th–early 18th century) or his son Zhang Weibang (about 1725–about 1775), Kangxi period, 1709–23, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Gu6458-7/12.

Focused on three Qing dynasty (1644-1912) Empresses, the exhibition includes nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures, and decorative art objects, many from Beijing’s Palace Museum, which was once the Forbidden City, the Qing dynasty’s palace complex.

Exploring the lives of Empress Dowager Chongqing (1693 - 1777), Empress Xiaoxian (1712 - 1748) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 - 1908), Empresses of China’s Forbidden City offers a unique opportunity to experience the hidden lives of these powerful women. “We are very proud to reclaim the presence and influence of these empresses, about whom history has largely been silent,” says Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s curator for this exhibition. “The exquisite objects . . . give us a better understanding of these intriguing women. Further evidence [from] historical sources help illuminate their hidden, but inspiring lives.”

The exhibition showcases the largest assemblage of imperial textiles and jewelry ever shared with the U.S. from the Palace Museum. The exquisite jewelry and adornments, stunning embroidery and opulent dragon robes were all used by the Qing dynasty Empresses to project authority.

Festive headdress with phoenixes and peonies
© The Palace Museum

Festive headdress with phoenixes and peonies. Probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, Tongzhi or Guangxu period, probably 1872 or 1888–89, silver with gilding, kingfisher feather, pearls, coral, jadeite, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and glass; frame: metal, wires with silk satin, velvet, and cardboard, Palace Museum, Gu59708.

Festive robe with bats, lotuses, and the character for longevity
© The Palace Museum

Festive robe with bats, lotuses, and the character for longevity. Probably Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou (embroidery), and Imperial Workshop, Beijing (tailoring), Jiaqing period, 1796–1820, embroidery, polychrome and metallic-wrapped silk threads on silk tabby, Palace Museum, Gu43302.

Lobed fan with cranes, peaches, and rocks
© The Palace Museum

Lobed fan with cranes, peaches, and rocks. Qianlong period, 1736–95, appliqué, silk fabric on silk gauze with pigments; handle: wood and ivory, Palace Museum, Gu136152.

Hairpin with crab and reed
© The Palace Museum

Hairpin with crab and reed. Daoguang period, 1834 or earlier, jade (nephrite), kingfisher feather, pearls, ruby, and silver with gilding, Palace Museum, Gu10223.

Court hat with phoenixes
© The Palace Museum

Court hat with phoenixes. Probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, 18th or 19th century, sable, velvet, silk floss, pearls, tiger’s-eye stone, lapis lazuli, glass, birch bark and metal with gilding, and kingfisher feather, Palace Museum, Gu60084.

The art created for, by, and about the Empresses offers a window into their lives. A heartfelt poem written by the Qianlong emperor after his Empress Xiaoxian’s untimely death will be on view to the public for the first time. A 237-pound, gem-encrusted gold shrine, built to commemorate the Empress Dowager Chongqing, will be displayed for the first time outside of China. The recently restored sixteen-foot oil portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi, publicly displayed for the first time since the 1960s, was a gift to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. It is a striking representation of the most powerful Empress in Chinese history, one who was part of a succession of empresses who radically changed women's political roles and helped shape China as a nation.

Peabody Essex Museum

Empress Dowager Cixi. Katharine A. Carl (United States, 1865–1938), Guangxu period, 1903, painting: oil on canvas; frame: camphor wood, transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2011.16.1-2a-ap.

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through February 10, 2019, before traveling to the Freer|Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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