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Object of the Month: Portrait of an Empress

The Empress Dowager, Tze Hsi, of China

Katharine Carl, The Empress Dowager, Tze Hsi, of China, Quing dynasty, 1903. Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Freer|Sackler (S2011.16.1-2a-ap).

ART OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY: In 1903, American portrait artist Katharine A. Carl got the commission of a lifetime. Sarah Pike Conger, wife of the then-U.S. Ambassador to China, asked the artist to travel to Beijing to paint a portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi for exhibition at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

In a bid to strengthen East-West diplomacy, the portrait would be China's opportunity to show the face of a senior figure at the Imperial court to the world—a surprising turn because royalty in China did not previously allow their images to be publicly disseminated.

Carl accepted the offer and lived in Beijing's Forbidden City for nine months. While she painted, she was required to follow centuries-old conventions: The portrait of the Empress Dowager could not show any shadows or perspective. Despite the restrictions, which Carl felt dulled her subject's personality, she finished several portraits, one of which was ultimately shown in St. Louis (pictured).

As the only Western foreigner to live within the Forbidden City at the time, Carl made the most of her access and later published a memoir, With the Empress Dowager. Her account provides a rare glimpse into the final years of the Chinese Imperial Court.

Following the 1904 World's Fair, China's Minister to the United States, Liang Pixu, presented the portrait to President Theodore Roosevelt, who in turn transferred it to the Smithsonian. It is currently on display at the Freer|Sackler, as part of the exhibition Empresses of China's Forbidden City, 1644-1912.

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