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Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Opens “Power | Play” an Exhibition Exploring China’s Empress Dowager on the World Stage

The life of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was anything but conventional. She rose in power from a low-ranking imperial concubine to Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing court, reigning as sovereign to more than 400 million people for more than 45 years. “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Sept. 24 through Jan. 29, 2012.

The Empress Dowager Cixi in sedan chair surrounded by eunuchs, China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904. Glass plate negative. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SCGR 261

The exhibition presents 19 stunning photographic portraits of the Empress Dowager created from the Freer and Sackler Archives’ collection of original and unique glass negatives. The portraits reveal a ruler who, in an attempt to control her public persona, seized on the emerging technology of photography to shape her image on the world stage.

On public display for the first time, the life-sized portraits bring visitors face-to-face with one of history’s most powerful women. The high-resolution images are printed on large aluminum panels, a format that enables visitors to see a fascinating level of detail previously imperceptible in conventional prints.

The photographs were taken in the years following China’s Boxer Rebellion, when Cixi (pronounced TSUH-see) was held in low regard throughout the world. In 1903, she commissioned a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling (pronounced SYOON-leeng) to take meticulously staged studio portraits of her and her court, melding modern photography with traditional conventions of imperial portraiture. Several of the photographs taken at the imperial Summer Palace outside of Beijing depict the Empress dressed as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Others depict her with attendants and eunuchs boating on a lake in theatrical costumes.

“One of the most striking things about the photographs is their theatricality,” said David Hogge, curator and head of the Freer and Sackler Archives. “Cixi created a unique aesthetic that mixed traditional Qing court styles with her own personal flair for theater, fashion and religious devotion. More than 100 years ago, she was strategically making these portraits to manage her image for various constituents—much as a politician would use a photo op today.”

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit

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