Empress Dowager Cixi
understood how compelling a portrait could be from a public-relations perspective. The Chinese ruler wanted to counteract the foreign perception that she was a ruthless “dragon lady”—though, to be fair, she did murder one of the emperor’s son’s concubines, and poisoned Emperor Guangxu himself with arsenic. She also may have incited the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, which resulted in the murder of foreigners and Christians in China.
To combat all this bad press, Cixi cultivated relationships with foreign diplomats and allowed an American artist, Katherine A. Carl, to paint her (a transgressive and thoroughly modern decision, considering that, in China, access to depictions of the imperial family was considered a privilege). The resulting picture features the empress dowager looking glamorous and regal, wearing a yellow and blue robe with white netting around the neck.
After the portrait was displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, Cixi had it presented to Theodore Roosevelt—a shrewd diplomatic move for Chinese-Western relations. (The Smithsonian now owns the work.) Cixi also allowed herself to be photographed, and distributed the results to foreign dignitaries in hopes that they would see her—and China—as both a relatable and respectable figure. Beyond controlling and disseminating her self-image, Cixi also amassed an impressive art collection, ranging from porcelain vases, British silverware, and an Italian marble table to stone carvings and an American car.