Hubert Vos: Portrait of Dowager Empress Cixi (1905)


(Summer Palace, Beijing, China)

A painting by the Dutch artist Hubert Vos (1855 – 1935). Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was the de facto ruler of the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty from 1861 to her death in 1908. Cixi started her position at the Qing court as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor (reign 1850-1861). She gave birth to a son, Zaichun, who became the Tongzhi Emperor after the death of the Xianfeng emperor. When her son became emperor, she was elevated to the rank of Dowager Empress and became the regent of her 5 year old son (originally there were more regents but she ousted them). When her son died in 1875, Cixi installed her nephew as the the Guangxu Emperor (reign 1875-1908). Cixi completely dominated the reigns of her son and her nephew at such an extent that officials sometimes ignored the emperor and consulted with Cixi instead. The reigns of both emperors marked a decline of the Qing dynasty and were marked by civil wars, wars with foreign powers, military defeats and often humiliating treaties. The Qing court started a reform program known as the 'Self-Strengthening Movement' but court intrigues, lack of initiative and corruption often damaged these reforms. When in 1899 the Boxer Rebellion broke out (a anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising), Cixi supported the movement and declared war against all foreign powers. An Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China with an army, defeated the Imperial Army and occupied Beijing and other important cities. The resulting peace was humiliating for the Qing dynasty and hastened the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Cixi died several years later on 15 November 1908 at the age of 72. Her nephew the Guangxu Emperor died the day before her (forensic tests in 2008 have concluded that he died from acute arsenic poisoning). On her deathbed Cixi named another nephew of her, the 2 year old Puyi, the son of Zaifeng, Prince Chun, as the emperor. Puyi would reign as the Xuantong emperor from 1908 to 1912 and briefly in 1917 and would be the last emperor. Hubert Vos visited the forbidden city in 1905 during during which he was asked by the Qing minister Wu Ting Fang to paint "some court officials". Vos made three portraits of Cixi of which this is the first one. Hubert was severely limited in his actions. Cixi wished not to be portrayed as an old woman but as the empress of China and no decay, lines, age or sorrow was to be reproduced. Vos himself saw this painting "more like a monument than like a portrait". The main color of Cixi's costume is imperial yellow with ornaments in lilac that signify longevity and happiness. On her head is an arrangement of false hair studded with flowers, pearls, jades and jewels. In her ears are pearls of different sizes. Above Cixi hangs a board with the text "Great Pure kingdom" (the name of the current dynasty), "Tzu Tsi" (the name of the empress), Empress Dowager (the title of Cixi). Cixi was pleased with the painting and awarded Vos with the honorary title "Commander of the Double Dragon". When Vos returned to the United Sates he would make another portrait of Cixi, this one more realistic. Painting from 1905.

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