Were Qing Dynasty empresses prisoners of the imperial palace? Probably not. In the context of their times, the wives and consorts of the emperors of the last Chinese dynasty were highly respected — and powerful.

“Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912” — an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s museums of Asian art in in Washington — presents ample evidence. The exhibition coincides with the 40th anniversary of the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.

On left, painting of child and woman in lower room of house interior. On right, scroll art depicting Chinese empress (© The Palace Museum)
Images of a consort of the Qianlong emperor with the future Jiaqing emperor (left) and Empress Dowager Chongqing (right) are of the late 18th century. (© Palace Museum)

Works of art that hung in the empresses’ chambers, domestic objects they handled daily and splendid clothing they wore signal women of power. Although by today’s standards their lives may seem restricted, “they had very active lives,” curator Jan Stuart says.

The imperial silk embroidered robe shown at left is c. 1736. The silk platform shoes, their heels decorated with glass beads, are of the late 19th century. (© The Palace Museum)

They were noted horsewomen and archers who hunted with the emperor. Their ornate slippers and platform shoes attest to their status as  Manchus: They did not bind their feet.

And the emperor listened to them.

Finery fit for an emperor

Imperial Chinese court hat with red velvet (© The Palace Museum)
Court hat with jeweled phoenixes, Qing dynasty, c. 1900 (© The Palace Museum)

The belongings on display — like a crown set with jewels and kingfisher feathers or a robe with peacock feathers stitched into its silk brocade — display fine workmanship.

Paintings in the exhibition show the influence of western artists working in the imperial court. The objects and furniture are as fine as similar items belonging to the emperor. Personal seals indicate that empresses exerted authority. All together, the artifacts create an intimate picture of luxury and esteem.

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was the most powerful of the five women whose belongings are featured. Where other empresses influenced indirectly, as advisers, she “had power directly in her hands,” Stuart says. Cixi effectively ruled for nearly 50 years. She died four years before the Qing dynasty ended.

Ink on paper artwork depicting Chinese empress and emperor bow hunting on horseback (© The Palace Museum)
The Qianlong Emperor and Imperial Woman Hunting a Deer (detail), late 18th century (© The Palace Museum)

A rewarding collaboration

The exhibition, first of its kind, is a collaboration among the Smithsonian Institution; the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts; and the Palace Museum in Beijing. Most of the artifacts are from the Palace Museum and have never before been seen outside China.

On left, oil painting of Chinese empress sitting on throne. On right, elaborate enamel ewer (© The Palace Museum)
At left, a painting by Katharine A. Carl in 1903 features Empress Dowager Cixi. The enameled gold ewer, at right, was made in the late 18th century, (© The Palace Museum)

The exhibit is hosted by the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Because of the Sackler’s standing as a leading Asian art museum, the Palace Museum allowed the American team to work directly with the objects. “They were very happy working with us,” Stuart says, adding, “Things that [we] asked for, they took very seriously and they lent us the best.”

The Smithsonian museums in Washington and New York regularly feature exhibits from around the world as well as collections in natural history, American history, air and space, arts, and ethnic and cultural history.

The Palace Museum sent things to this empress exhibit that it hadn’t lent before and is unlikely to lend again, Stuart says.