Return of the empresses

Sublime piles of snow, menacing icicles and that wan winter light. In the middle of New England’s most challenging season, our curator of Chinese art, Daisy Wang, has a perfect plan to brighten the day.

A small group of staff are invited to the conservation lab to view two of the museum’s most important Chinese paintings: a pair of near life-sized imperial portraits depicting Empress Xiaoxian (1712-1748) and Empress Xiaomu (d. 1808).

These commemorative portraits were created by court painters in the late 18th or 19th century after the two empresses passed away. They were likely hung for extended periods of time during ancestral worship rituals at the royal court, which partly explains their wear and tear before they came into the museum’s collection in the 1950s. Thanks to a generous grant from Friends of Heritage Preservation, these portraits have just returned to the museum following a long conservation process conducted by one of the best Chinese painting conservators in the world.

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Hanging scroll of Empress Xiaomu by Qing Dynasty court artists. Ink and colors on silk. Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds,1956. Peabody Essex Museum, E33618. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

At first sight, we are taken aback by the splendor of these works: they are positively — and quite literally — radiant. Their vibrant hues, symmetrical detailing and visual rhythm captivate and, our collective interest is piqued…we want to know more.

The first scroll portrait we encounter is that of Empress Xiaomu, wife of Qing Dynasty Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861). Her placid and slightly worried expression is inviting and somehow bridges the gap of our 200-year distance.

As we gather around in our own layers of winter garb, Daisy explains that the empress is wearing the most elaborate and grand of all court ensembles: a winter ceremonial garment with sable fur trim. Pleated skirts peek out from under a bright yellow robe and long navy blue vest jumps to life with embroidered gold dragons, pearl and coral beading. What is even more dramatic is her collar piece with flared, wing-like tips. Our attention is drawn specifically to the robe’s sleeves:

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Empress Xiaomu’s robe featuring hoof-shaped, sable-lined cuffs. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

As a nod to Empress Xiaomu’s nomadic origins, her fur-lined cuffs are shaped like horse hooves. It’s a clever way to express the empress’ ethnic origins (the Manchu are considered legendary horse people) and, as Daisy demonstrates by pulling her own sleeves down over her hands, it’s a very practical way to stay warm!

Everything about Empress Xiaomu’s appearance is strictly defined by her status and stipulated in the imperial edicts of her day, from the seven gold phoenixes that rim her crown, to the two over-sized fresh-water pearl necklaces that drape her torso and the bright imperial yellow color of her robe that can only be donned by emperors, empresses and empress dowagers.

In the next room we are introduced to Empress Xiaoxian, wife of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). (Longtime fans of the museum might remember the Qianlong Emperor from our 2010 blockbuster exhibition, The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City.)

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Hanging scroll of Empress Xiaoxian painted by Qing Dynasty court artists. Ink and colors on silk. Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds,1956. Peabody Essex Museum, E33619. Photo by Daisy Wang.

Empress Xiaoxian’s visage is notably more dimensional, modeled and lifelike than that of Empress Xiaomu. Daisy is quick to point out that court painters would probably never have been given direct access to Empress Xiaoxian, rather they had to work by copying existing works, or from descriptions and pattern books. In this case, it is likely that her face was done by a highly skilled painter who understood European painting techniques, such as chiaroscuro, brought to the court by Jesuit missionaries.

Daisy explains that at the age of 15, Empress Xiaoxian was married to the emperor-to-be. Known for her virtues and thoughtfulness, she remained Qianlong’s sweetheart and soul-mate despite the fact that the Qianlong Emperor had dozens of consorts. In her mid-30s, the empress died unexpectedly and the devastated Emperor Qianlong entered an extended period of mourning. Never fully recovered from this loss, he composed many poems in his beloved wife’s honor over the course of his life and it is likely that these detailed, life-like portraits aided the commemoration and grieving process.

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Daisy Wang with the hanging scroll portrait of Empress Xiaoxian. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

We gawk over Empress Xiaoxian’s imperial robe, admiring its detailed motifs: longevity symbols, auspicious clouds, dragons, cosmic waves and mountains. The restoration of these scroll paintings has been transformational and the opportunity for close study has opened up new avenues of inquiry. As we discuss further scientific research about the painting techniques and materials, Daisy points to the faint traces of pigment at the lower part of the robe, a suggestion that part of the original wave patterns were altered at some point. An ultraviolet light is brought out to help us better examine this theory. As the purple bulb flicks on, we all gasp and trill upon seeing extensive areas of the original painting – new layers of its complex life and history — brought to light.

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PEM’s hanging scrolls in their pre-conservation state. Photo by Daisy Wang.

Editor’s Note: PEM’s conservator, Kathryn Carey, adds that, “the conservation treatment of Asian Art is a very complicated process involving unique materials that are not normally available here in the West. The art objects such as scrolls and screens are made not only from paper, but also textiles and wood. They are created in a multi-layered format using all three materials with a unique application of pastes and glues. Asian Art Conservator training can often require a ten year apprenticeship in a studio in Japan, China or Korea.” 

We were extremely fortunate to have the expertise and facilities of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Asian Art Conservation Laboratory who helped make this conservation project such a success. Under the direction of Jacki Elgar, Phillip Meredith, Conservator of Japanese Painting, and Jing Gao, Conservator of Chinese Paintings, lent their invaluable support and counsel.


  1. Sandy Sheckman says:

    Looking forward to seeing these ladies in their exquisite finery on view at PEM. Might there need to be a celebration to welcome them back?

  2. Jim Olson says:

    My four year old says “so pretty, when can we go to see them at PEM!”

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