AN IMPERIAL PORTRAIT OF THE EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI AS GUANYIN ATTRIBUTED TO QU ZHAOLIN QING DYNASTY, GUANGXU PERIOD
- ink and colour on silk
One of the responsibilities of court painters in Imperial China was to paint the portraits of emperors, empresses, and imperial concubines. During the Qianlong reign, there were numerous European oil painters serving at court. They created a considerable number of imperial portraits that have survived in major museums and private collections, including the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The Empress Dowager Cixi was fond of having herself painted. At around the age of 70, she had two Western painters create the present portrait of her dressed as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The present piece is not the only costume portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi dressed as Guanyin that has survived. Other closely related examples are preserved in other collections outside of the Palace Museum. Imperial role-playing costume portraiture probably began during the Yongzheng reign; his son, the Qianlong Emperor, likewise repeatedly had himself portrayed in Buddhist guises. The Empress Cixi imitated her ancestors’ practice.
The current Portrait of Cixi as Guanyin, which is from a private collection, is an ink and colour on silk scroll painting measuring 147.5 by 90.5 cm. Its mounting bears two labels, one stating the title and the other reading, “This portrait of the Empress Dowager as Guanyin was likely to have been by Qu Zhaolin (1866-1937). It was removed from the Forbidden City.” The labels’ authors are unknown. A similar colour on silk Portrait of Cixi as Guanyin (fig. 1), measuring 217 by 116 cm is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The two compositions are almost identical, both depicting Cixi dressed luxuriously as the Bodhisattva of Compassion and seated ceremoniously under a peach tree bearing large and ripe peaches. She is surrounded by jade-coloured bamboo shoots, lingzhi blooms, and fluttering colourful butterflies. A boy-worshipper is depicted kneeling on one side holding lingzhi blooms with both hands. These auspicious elements suggest that the portraits were created to celebrate Cixi’s birthday.
Pairs of closely related compositions are frequently found in Qing court painting.
The labels attribute the present painting to the late Qing court painter Qu Zhaolin (1866-1937), albeit without substantial proof. Published in the early Republican era, Wu Xingu’s Lidai huashi huizhuan bupian [Compendium of history paintings. Supplementary Volume.] records that “Qu Zhaolin, zi Renfu, lived in Beijing and served at the inner court. His fine-brush paintings of birds and animals are lifelike.” Qin Zhongwen in his Jindai Zhongguo huajia yu huapai [‘Modern Chinese Painters and Schools of Paintings’] writes, “Qu Zhaolin (zi Renfu) succeeded Guan Nianci in managing Ruyiguan and had a similar painting style. People referred to them as the ‘Ruyiguan School’ painters.” In the tenth year of the Guangxu reign (1884), Qu Zhaolin, at the age of 18, gained employment at Ruyiguan on the recommendation of Zhang Lezhai (as related in Qu Zuming’s “Ji Xianzu Qugong Zhaolin yu Qingting Ruyiguan,” Yandu, 1991:6). Cixi was 55 years old by Chinese count that year, and such imperial portraits tended to depict their sitters younger than they were. This is consistent with Cixi’s appearance in the present portrait.
In the late Qing period, when Cixi was the de-facto ruler of China, the American painter Katharine Carl painted four portraits of her in oil. In accordance with a prior agreement, one of the portraits was sent to the United States to participate in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair). Afterwards, on 15th January 1905, the portrait was transferred to the United States government, and it remains in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution today. Another portrait in oil and a small oil sketch by Carl are still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
In addition to painted portraits, Cixi also embraced photography, which was introduced to the Qing court within her lifetime. In her photographic portraits, Cixi similarly dressed as Guanyin and had her eunuchs play Weituo and other Buddhist supplicants (fig. 2). However, the Empress Dowager appears older in the photographs, which were created years after the Portrait as Guanyin. Having said that, the two media of portraiture can undoubtedly be enjoyed simultaneously.