Empresses of China’s Forbidden City at The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), August 18, 2018 – February 10, 2019

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s last dynasty—the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 spectacular works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures, and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these empresses engaged with and influenced court politics, art and religion. On an exclusive U.S. tour, this exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see rare treasures from the Forbidden City, including works that have never before been publicly displayed and many of which have never been on view in the United States. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, the exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler), Washington, D.C.; and the Palace Museum, Beijing.” — PEM

“We are very proud to reclaim the presence and influence of these empresses, about whom history has largely been silent,” says Daisy Wang, PEM’s curator for this exhibition. “The exquisite objects related to the empresses give us a better understanding of these intriguing women. Further evidence found in court archives and other historical sources help illuminate their hidden, but inspiring lives.”

“The study of women in history is exciting, timely and necessary,” says Jan Stuart, co-curator at the Freer|Sackler. “By focusing on the material and spiritual world of these women, we begin to fill in details absent from previous accounts of women in Chinese history. To the extent that the empresses’ experience of the expectations and constraints finds echo in our own world, we hope this exhibition will prompt broader reflection on the position of women in society and fosters a sense of commonality and connection across time and cultures.”

Ritual space in the Main Hall of the Palace of Longevity and Health. Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum.

Drinking Tea from Yinzhen’s Twelve Ladies. Court painters, Beijing, possibly including Zhang Zhen (active late 17th–early 18th century) or his son Zhang Weibang (about 1725–about 1775), Kangxi period, 1709–23, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Gu6458-7/12. © The Palace Museum.

Looking at Plum Blossoms from Yinzhen’s Twelve Ladies. Court painters, Beijing, possibly including Zhang Zhen (active late 17th–early 18th century) or his son Zhang Weibang (about 1725–about 1775), Kangxi period, 1709–23, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Gu6458-8/12. © The Palace Museum.

Lobed fan with cranes, peaches, and rocks. Qianlong period, 1736–95, appliqué, silk fabric on silk gauze with pigments; handle: wood and ivory, Palace Museum, Gu136152. © The Palace Museum.

Amitayus Buddha in a niche (detail). Workshop, probably Tibet, Qianlong period, 1771, copper alloy with gilding and pigments; niche: zitan wood with silk damask, Palace Museum, Gu203040. © The Palace Museum.

Dressing case with mirror stand and handheld mirror. Qianlong period, mid- to late 18th century, with later repairs, lacquer with gold and polychrome decoration on wood core, zitan wood, suanzhi wood, mother-ofpearl, bone, metal with gilding; wood-framed mirror with embroidered silk case, Palace Museum, Gu180527. © The Palace Museum.

Festive headdress with phoenixes and peonies. Probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, Tongzhi or Guangxu period, probably 1872 or 1888–89, silver with gilding, kingfisher feather, pearls, coral, jadeite, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and glass; frame: metal, wires with silk satin, velvet, and cardboard, Palace Museum, Gu59708. © The Palace Museum.

Court hat with phoenixes. Probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, 18th or 19th century, sable, velvet, silk floss, pearls, tiger’s-eye stone, lapis lazuli, glass, birch bark and metal with gilding, and kingfisher feather, Palace Museum, Gu60084. © The Palace Museum.

Festive robe with bats, clouds, and the character for longevity. Probably Imperial Silk Manufactory, Nanjing (weaving), and Imperial Workshop, Beijing (tailoring), Qianlong period, 1785 or earlier, patterned silk satin and embroidery, polychrome silk and metallic-wrapped threads on silk fabric, Palace Museum, Gu42136. © The Palace Museum.

Festive robe with bats, lotuses, and the character for longevity. Probably Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou (embroidery), and Imperial Workshop, Beijing (tailoring), Jiaqing period, 1796–1820, embroidery, polychrome and metallic-wrapped silk threads on silk tabby, Palace Museum, Gu43302. © The Palace Museum.

Festive robe with eight dragon-phoenix roundels and twelve imperial symbols. Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou (embroidery), and Imperial Workshop, Beijing (tailoring), Guangxu period, about 1888–89, embroidery, polychrome and metallic-wrapped silk threads on silk tabby, Palace Museum, Gu44219. © The Palace Museum.

Platform shoes with tiger heads, the character for longevity, and bats. Guangxu period, 1875–1908, appliqué, silk satin; platforms: wood core covered with cotton, glass beads, Palace Museum, Gu61568. © The Palace Museum.

Empress Xiaoxian. Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng; Bohemia, 1708–1780), Yi Lantai (active about 1748–86), and possibly Wang Ruxue (active 18th century), Qianlong period, 1777 with repainting possibly in 19th century, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Peabody Essex Museum, gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds,1956, E33619.

Stupa containing Empress Dowager Chongqing’s hair and Amitayus Buddha. Imperial Workshop, Beijing, Qianlong period, 1777, gold and silver alloy with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones, and glass; pedestal: zitan wood, Palace Museum, Gu11866. © The Palace Museum.

Empress Dowager Chongqing at the Age of Seventy. Probably Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining; Italy, 1688–1766) and other court painters, Beijing, Qianlong period, about 1761, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Gu6452. © The Palace Museum.

Empress Dowager Cixi. Katharine A. Carl (United States, 1865–1938), Guangxu period, 1903, painting: oil on canvas; frame: camphor wood, transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2011.16.1-2a-ap.

Empress Dowager Cixi with foreign envoys’ wives in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Leshou tang) in the Garden of Nurturing Harmony (Yihe yuan). Photographed by Yu Xunling (1874–1943), Guangxu period, 1903–05, print from glass-plate negative, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.13 SC-GR-249. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, purchase.

With an international team of experts, exhibition co-curators Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, and Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer|Sackler, spent four years travelling to the Forbidden City to investigate the largely hidden world of the women inside. Delving into the vast imperial archives and collection, their fresh research unveils how these women influenced history as well as the spectacular art made for, by and about them. “This exhibition establishes a new model for future international research and museum collaborations,” says Dr. Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum.

Images courtesy The Peabody Essex Museum.