There is nothing minimalist in the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler exhibit “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912.”

The Qing dynasty, one of the largest in world history, started with the Manchu rulers from northeast Asia adopting the Forbidden City of Beijing as their center of governance in 1644 and held power until only a few years following the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1908.

The galleries’ sumptuous show focuses on royal portraits, paintings of court life, imperial seals, Buddhist sutras and other objects of religious devotion, tableware and furniture, which provide a glimpse into the luxurious lifestyles of some of the almost two dozen Qing empresses.

While these objects reveal their tastes, these women are little written about in history. The challenge of the curators of this exhibit—and one they pose to visitors—is to admire the beauty but then to look again, and deeper behind the artifacts to discover what they reveal about this society.

The exhibit begins with a map of the Forbidden City, which gives a clue to the complexity of the court’s power structure, with only one empress on the top of eight tiers in the ranking of importance of multiple royal wives in the harem.

Marriage was the entry into this royal life. There is a display of five pages from the 144-page wedding album with the details of the ceremony of the Empress Xiaoding to the Guangxu Emperor in 1889. One of her wedding robes is displayed with its embroidered symbols of the phoenix for the empress and the dragon for the emperor, who are joined in a happy marriage.

Rather than merely glamorous or subservient wives whose primary role was to be mother to a future heir, there are clues that there was much more to their lives. They were intelligent and ambitious, and since their feet were not bound, they had mobility, could ride horses and participated in hunts with men.

Nor were these always only marriages of political arrangements, for there is evidence of one most beloved empress, Xiaoxian, who had been the childhood sweetheart of the Qianlong Emperor. A rare treasure on display is the elegy he wrote in his own hand of his love for her upon her early death.

Costumes in brilliant color (yellow was reserved for the imperial rulers) with stunning detailed handwork on silk and fine jewelry are the epitome of timeless luxury. There is also a theatrical costume with flowers and butterflies for a performer in court opera.

Up-close and personal are objects like a dressing table and toilet accessories, such as mirrors and a small massage roller for the face. A late 19th-century pair of slippers on ceramic platform, hair ornaments and a finger nail extender are also of interest.

The most spectacular work is a gold Buddhist stupa containing Empress Dowager Chongqing’s hair and Amitayus Buddha. The elaborate 237-pound work required that gold from some of her personal objects to be melted—an interesting idea of how earthly valuables in her life were used to be transformed into this monument of her death.

The power clearly resided in the dynastic rule, with the emperor being either husband or son of the empress. While the last empress, Cixi, would attain that position by being both a wife and mother, she would go further by challenging the tradition that “women shall not rule.” Cixi, who would hold power for almost half a century, was a figure in world politics and is the subject of countless both fictional and history books, movies and television series.

While most of the 135 objects have rarely been seen outside of the Palace Museum in Beijing, there is one owned by the Smithsonian. The monumental oil portrait of Cixi, by American artist Katherine A. Carl, followed the tradition of format in the formal portraits of the previous empresses, but broke with tradition with Cixi’s unprecedented publication of her image beyond the Forbidden City.

Given to President Theodore Roosevelt to be displayed at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, for the world to see, it is now located at the entrance hall of the Sackler Gallery.

“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” is well worth the time it takes to look at both closely and deeply for what it reveals about both art and history.

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