Studying the Cixi Portrait at the Harvard Art Museum (2024)

Witnessing the Cixi Portrait at the Harvard Art Museum (2024)

There is a famous portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908 Qing Dynasty) at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge MA. A.k.a., Cixi portrait. It was painted by Hubert Vos, a Dutch-American artist in 1906. I had the good fortune to see this painting in person last week at the Harvard Art Museum. This blog post is primarily about this famous painting, its background, and history and analyzes it as an example of the power and relevance of portraiture in human history.

I learned about Empress Dowager Cixi through my interest in Xiang Li’s collection of Empress paintings. I have discussed Xiang Li’s stunning watercolor portrait of Cixi in my previous blog post on her paintings of the Five most influential Empresses in Chinese Imperial history. Cixi was one of the most influential empresses who ruled China for almost 50 years. She was also the last imperial head who governed China before it became the People’s Republic. As a commanding matriarch and the de facto ruler of the Qing dynasty, she was one of the most powerful and controversial figures in China’s imperial history traditionally dominated by a line of male Emperors.

Cixi: her political power and significance in Chinese history

As an effective governor, a ruthless politician, a societal reformer, a patron of the arts, and a trendsetter for fashion and culture, she tried to balance many different roles and responsibilities. Various historical texts about Cixi state that she fully controlled how her image was portrayed to the public. She would direct every aspect of her representation and imagery to her court painters and photographers. This included specifying the clothes, her facial expressions, her age, other objects included in the picture, etc. depending on the kind of image she wanted to portray to the public. All her official portraits were in effect ‘self-portraits’ painted by the court painters.

See below for examples of her official portraits and photographs and how they changed through different stages of her rule until 1903.

Cixi Portrait

Given her aspirations as an influencer of her times, towards the end of her rule, Cixi desired for China (and herself) to be known and recognized internationally. Starting in 1903, she was the first Chinese Royal to allow Western artists to paint her oil portraits with the intent of being exhibited in the West.

Cixi portraits, artists, and styles

There are four well-known original oil portraits of Cixi painted by two very accomplished American portrait artists, Hubert Vos and Katherine Carl. Two of these reside in prestigious museums in the USA (the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Harvard Art Museum) and two at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.

Until 1903, her portraits had been painted in traditional Chinese techniques by the court painters who simply followed her commands for how she wanted to be portrayed. However, the oil portraits by Western artists tended to be very realistic showing the real age and personality of the subject as seen by the artist, which was a challenge to overcome for Cixi. According to historical texts, when the Dutch-American artist, Hubert Vos (1855-1935) painted Cixi’s first official portrait in 1905, she dominated the process by giving him directions on her portrayal. She wanted to be seen as a youthful and benevolent Cixi as can be seen in the painting with her sitting in a bamboo grove wearing a bright yellow robe with blossoming flowers and pyramids of apples surrounding her (picture above). The result was an idealized painting that pleased the patroness Cixi, but not the American artist who came from a culture where an artist’s autonomy had been recognized and respected since the Renaissance.

So Mr. Vos decided to paint a more ‘realistic’ version of Cixi after going back to America. For this second painting, he drew from a combination of his first official portrait of Cixi (painted in 1905 as shown above) and her other official photographic portraits to convince the viewer of the authenticity of his portrayal. His portrait depicts her as he saw her – the stern, older-looking, power-wielding aristocrat. The color scheme of the painting is dark and has a picture of a coiling dragon (a symbol of male emperors in imperial China) behind her sitting figure, suggesting that as a ruling matriarch, she had now effectively overpowered the emperor. Although this was not an officially approved portrait of Cixi, Hubert Vos exhibited it at the 1906 Paris Salon exhibition (one of the most influential annual art events in the Western world at that time) and won a bronze medal for it. It was titled as ‘Empress Dowager Cixi of the Great Qing Empire’.

Title: H. I. M., the Empress Dowager of China, Cixi (1835-1908)
Artist: Hubert Vos, American (Maastricht, Holland 1855 – 1935 New York, NY)
Date: 1905-1906
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 169.6 x 123.6 cm (66 3/4 x 48 11/16 in.) framed: 169.6 x 123.2 x 7 cm (66 3/4 x 48 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks: Signed: l.l., in Chinese: Respectfully painted by Hubert Vos

The Cixi portrait acquired by Harvard Museum in 1943

This painting was acquired by the Harvard Art Museum in 1943 (see details above). Since I live in the Boston area I decided to go see this masterpiece in person. Currently, this painting is not being displayed in the exhibition rooms, it is stored in their Art Study Center. One has to request an appointment with the museum to view any of the paintings stored in their Study Center. They reserve a room for you for the scheduled appointment and provide ample time (3-4 hours) for viewers to study the painting and take photos for educational purposes. I went to see the painting at the Art Study Center last week.

Please find some of my pictures from the visit below. The lighting in the room and the thick encasing of the painting were not very conducive for good photography but the art in the life-size painting was very impressive and awe-inspiring! Seeing this famous painting so up close and personal was a very special experience for me and I would like to thank the Harvard Art Museum for the opportunity to be able to do that.

Conclusion and Reflection

As a parting thought, I wanted to share this interesting information I found online about this painting. Out of curiosity, I asked Microsoft Copilot if it could provide me information on the value of this painting. I got this answer:

The value of the portrait of Dowager Empress Cixi by Hubert Vos is difficult to quantify in monetary terms, as it is a unique historical artifact and not something that is traded in the art market. Its value lies in its cultural and historical significance rather than its price tag. As a piece of art that is part of the Harvard Art Museum’s collection, it is considered priceless in the sense that it holds value beyond what could be expressed in dollars and cents.

The portrait is valuable for several reasons:

  • Historical Significance: It represents a significant figure in Chinese history, the Dowager Empress Cixi, who played a crucial role in the late Qing Dynasty.
  • Artistic Merit: Hubert Vos was a renowned artist, and his works are appreciated for their quality and style.
  • Cultural Importance: The painting is an important cultural artifact that provides insight into the representation of Chinese royalty in art.

While the painting itself is not for sale, a photograph of the portrait was estimated at 1,000 – 2,000 USD at a Sotheby’s auction. This estimate was for the photograph, not the painting, indicating that even a reproduction holds some monetary value due to its connection with the original work.

In essence, the true value of the portrait is in its ability to connect us to the past and its influence on the understanding of Chinese history and culture. It is a treasured piece within the museum’s collection, reflecting its irreplaceable nature.

References for this blog post:

  1. Artful Subversion. Empress Dowager Cixi’s Image Making, by Ying-Chen Peng, Yale University Press, Available on Amazon
  2. Wikipedia
  3. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/painting-a-reputation-the-portrait-of-empress-dowager-cixi-by-katharine-augusta-carl/
  4. https://www.geringerart.com/hubert-vos-painter-of-chinas-dowager-empress-cixi/
  5. The Dowager Got a Bad Rap – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
  6. Microsoft Co-pilot

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