Empress’s first portrait restored

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Painting commissioned from US artist in 1903 returns to Smithsonian for extensive work

Carl’s The Empress Dowager Cixi, 1903—in a frame designed by Cixi herself

Staff at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries are celebrating the completion of a three-year project to restore a portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), which was commissioned by the Chinese ruler as an international public relations exercise. It was painted in 1903, when anti-Chinese sentiment was rife following the bloody Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which sought to drive all foreigners and Christians from China. The work was on loan to the National Museum of History in Taipei for more than 50 years before the Smithsonian decided to bring it back to the US for treatment.

No photographs or paintings of the Empress Dowager existed before this, because portraits of Chinese rulers were usually painted posthumously. Cixi broke with tradition by commissioning a series of works in an attempt to win international support for her regime by offering foreigners a rare, engaging image of China’s head of state. “Because there weren’t any photographs or paintings available, newspapers depicted her as witch-like or as a dragon lady after the Boxer Rebellion,” says David Hogge, the head of archives at the Freer and Sackler galleries, who was behind the campaign to bring the picture back to the US. “This portrait is part of a larger diplomatic push by the Chinese heads of state to salvage their reputations.” He sees the commission as a “desperate attempt for Imperial China to retain diplomatic relevancy as it was being attacked inside by Chinese revolutionaries”.

The idea for the portrait did not come from Cixi, however, but from Sarah Pike Conger, the wife of the American ambassador to China, who persuaded her to sit for the US artist Katherine Carl in 1903. Carl, who lived at the Forbidden Palace for nine months, later recorded her experiences in a bestselling book. Although she describes her relationship with the Empress Dowager as being close and affectionate, Cixi’s lady-in-waiting Der Ling paints an altogether different picture in her book on life in the Forbidden City. Der Ling wrote that Cixi was annoyed by Carl and tried to avoid her, even asking Der Ling to dress up and take her place at a sitting.

Artist under pressure

What is certain is that Carl was under pressure to finish the portrait in time for the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. This was China’s first formal participation in a World Expo and the work was its only entry in the Pavilion of Fine Arts. The Chinese presented the portrait to US President Theodore Roosevelt shortly after the fair, and it later entered the Smithsonian’s collection.

Carl was also under pressure to adhere to a Chinese aesthetic that differed from her French academic training. “There is some reference to spatial depth, but overall there is a flatness to it,” says Keith Wilson, the institution’s curator of ancient Chinese art. “There is a naturalism in regards to colour but the hues are more Western in character. For example, the yellow is more lemony than you would normally see in portraits by Chinese artists.” There is also no modelling on the face—a detail seen in surviving photographs of the unfinished work, suggesting that Carl made alterations to appease the empress.

Carl is believed to have painted three other portraits of Cixi during her stay. According to Hogge, two are in Beijing—a small study is in the Palace Museum and the Summer Palace has a version that is not on display—and the third is lost. Some believe that it was looted from the empress’s tomb.

Whack it with a hammer

The drive to bring the work back to the US began more than three years ago. After months of discussions, Grace Jan, an assistant conservator of Chinese paintings in the Smithsonian’s conservation and scientific research department, travelled to Taiwan in 2011 to oversee the deinstallation of the 17ft-high painting, which weighs half a tonne. Disassembling the original frame, which is believed to have been designed by the empress herself, was a challenge. “The painting hadn’t been moved in 50 years and there weren’t instructions on how to dismantle the giant, jigsaw puzzle-like frame,” she says. “There was a lot of whacking it with rubber hammers,” says Jenifer Bosworth, the institution’s exhibitions conservator.

The difficulties did not end there; the painting was later held up at Customs because the Taiwanese official who inspected the crates thought that the work had not been cleared to leave the country. “An employee from the Taiwanese museum had to go to the embassy and get it OK’d for shipment,” Jan says.

“Everyone’s shoulders slumped when we first saw the painting, because it was in such bad shape,” Hogge says. “It was a bit of a let-down, because it had tears, pigment loss and several coats of varnish,” Wilson says, adding: “It is moments like these that it’s helpful to have conservators with you to offer reassurance that it is going to be all right. They can see through the horror with optimism that it’s going to be OK.”

A century’s worth of dirt

“I was determined to make this treatment work,” says Jia-sun Tsang, a senior paintings conservator from the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. The portrait had a century’s worth of grime and both small and “sidewalk-sized” cracks, and many details were obscured by darkened varnish. “Most of the paint loss was to the face. In some cases, the ground layer was completely gone,” she says. Tsang thinks the cause is twofold: Carl’s need to alter details to achieve a desired aesthetic without having time to wait for the oil paint to dry and earlier attempts by restorers to lighten the empress’s face.

The frame, although filthy, was in good condition, with only a few losses and cracks, Bosworth says. It was cleaned, stabilised and a new coating was applied. Bosworth and her team have practised dismantling and reassembling the frame three times. “We’re finding ways to do it so as to minimise the strain. We’re working on a how-to manual right now,” she says. They also plan to create a mount so that it can travel safely.

Both Hogge and Wilson would like to see the picture go to China as part of a travelling show, and Wilson says that making the work available for loan was always a priority. “From the outset, we were helping to restore a major Chinese portrait with an international web of significance around it,” he says. “We were sure that it would take on a life of its own in new China.”

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