Katharine A. Carl (1865–1938), “Empress Dowager Cixi” (1903), oil on canvas with camphor wood frame (Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, S2011.16)

WASHINGTON DC — “The study of women in history is exciting, timely, and necessary,” asserts the catalogue introduction to the exhibition Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912, now on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. “From the outset of this project, our goal has been to reclaim the significance of Qing [Dynasty] empresses and to convey something of the texture of their lives.” Yet, with little recorded history about the imperial women and practically none of their own words, the exhibition relies on the exquisite objects that were made for, by, and about the women. Such material constraints naturally, and disappointingly, limit any interpretations of the individual women, but the curators exploited every available resource to the fullest extent, for which they should be commended. Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is groundbreaking in its subject matter and magnificent for the quality of its artworks.

Qing Kuan (1848–1927) and other court painters, “The Grand Imperial Wedding of the Guangxu Emperor” (detail). China, Beijing, Guangxu period (1875–1908), ca. 1889. Album leaves; ink and color on silk. Palace Museum, Gu5887-7/9-10 (© The Palace Museum)

Platform shoes. China, Guangxu period (1875–1908). Embroidery, polychrome silk threads on silk satin with silk tassels; platforms: wood core covered with cotton and glass beads. Palace Museum, Gu61391 (© The Palace Museum)

The exhibition focuses on the narratives of five (out of fourteen) Qing empresses. One figure — Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) — towers above the rest, as her story dominates the exhibition. “Cixi opens and ends the narrative in a conscious nod to her large presence at court,” Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, said by email. The closest to us chronologically, Cixi was the most powerful woman in the Qing dynasty, ruling the empire outright for nearly 50 years and breaking the tradition that women shall not rule. The exhibition includes objects and artworks that can be directly associated with her, such as an ink painting of a phoenix perching in a paulownia tree that Cixi, herself, painted.

Ewer with mothers and sons in garden, Imperial Workshop, Beijing. China, Beijing, Qianlong period (1736–95), probably 1760s or 1770s. Cloisonné and painted enamel, copper and gold alloy with polychrome enamels and gilding, coral, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Palace Museum, Gu11450 (© The Palace Museum)

Though Cixi’s presence in the exhibition is intentionally large, Stuart clarifies that it is “not intended [to] overwhelm or rob the other empresses of their parts in the story of imperial women.” The story, structured thematically, encompasses the women’s myriad experiences of marriage, motherhood, fashionable living, worship, and politics.

Unsurprisingly, motherhood dominated an imperial woman’s life, as giving birth to sons was her primary duty. Moreover, the empress became the nominal mother of all of the emperor’s children (hers and those of his imperial consorts). Thus, the bulk of the exhibition explores images and motifs relating to motherhood — for instance, fertility, boys at play, and mothers educating sons — that decorate nearly every type of object that was made for imperial women.

The Chinese believed that a close relationship between an imperial mother and her son reflects a harmonious society. As such, some of the most exquisite objects in the exhibition are those commissioned by emperors to celebrate or honor their mothers. The Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736-95) gets my vote for the “Best Son” award. He gifted his mother with a pair of black lacquered display cabinets decorated with gold and ivory. Upon her death, he commissioned a monumental gold stupa to commemorate and enshrine her hair.

Workshop, probably Guangzhou, “Five-panel screen.” China, Beijing, Qianlong period (1736–95), probably 1775 or before. Panels: cloisonné, copper alloy with polychrome enamels and gilding; frame: zitan wood and nan wood. Palace Museum, Gu210730 (© The Palace Museum)

Imperial workshop, Beijing, Seal of an empress with box, tray, lock, key, and plaques. China, Beijing, Republican period (1912–49), 1922. Gold alloy with silk tassels. Palace Museum, Gu167075 (© The Palace Museum)

The pairing of the empresses’ official portraits with their biographical texts stands out in the exhibition, as it grants a sense of humanity to an otherwise faceless name. Being state portraits, every detail of the paintings, from the robe colors to the sleeve design to the interior decor, is formulaic and symbolic, except for their faces, which are of course unique to the individual woman. Empress Dowager Cixi took advantage of another portrait tradition: she commissioned a portrait of herself in the guise of a Buddhist deity, going one step further in her self-presentation to assert her agency.

I applaud these rare moments of feminist power in Chinese art and culture. And certainly, I was enchanted and awed by the splendor of the objects that surrounded these imperial women. Yet, I could not forget that China’s empresses lived in cages, albeit golden and bejeweled ones. I am a Chinese art historian, but I am also a 21st-century woman. Walking through the exhibition, I found it challenging at times to suspend my modern sensibilities and outrage over the women’s restricted lives. But this is my own shortcoming. Rather, visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to engage with these imperial women on their own terms, because within their historical context, the empresses of China’s Qing Dynasty succeeded in making meaningful lives for themselves. And, indeed, that is something to celebrate and admire.

Probably Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688–1766) and other court painters, “Consort of the Qianlong emperor and the future Jiaqing emperor in his boyhood.” China, Beijing, Qianlong period (1736–95), probably 1760s. Painting originally mounted on a wall (tieluo); ink and color on silk. Palace Museum, Gu6539 (© The Palace Museum)

Probably Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688– 1766) and other court painters, “Empress Xiaozhuang.” China, Beijing, Qianlong period (1736–95), ca. 1750 Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Palace Museum, Gu6379 (© The Palace Museum)

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912, is on view through June 23, 2019 at Freer | Sackler (1050 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC). The exhibition was curated by 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 Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. In support of the exhibition, a multi-author, full-color catalog was published by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Freer|Sackler, and distributed by Yale University Press.

Dany is an art historian, author, and fiction writer currently working on her second novel. You can read about her art writing archived on her website and follow along as she jams on her planners. You...