A re-creation of Cixi’s throne room at the exhibition Empress Dowager, Cixi: Selections From the Summer Palace at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. (PHOTO / AP)
SANTA ANA, California - For more than a century she has been known as the woman behind the throne, the empress who through skill and circumstance rose from lowly imperial consort to iron-fisted ruler of China at a time and in a place when women were believed to have no power at all.
But it turns out Empress Dowager Cixi was much more than that. The 19th century ruler, who consolidated authority through political maneuvering, was also a serious arts patron and even an artist herself, with discerning tastes that helped set the style for traditional Asian art for more than a century.
That side of Cixi comes to the Western world for the first time with Sunday's unveiling of Empress Dowager, Cixi: Selections From the Summer Palace at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
The wide-ranging collection, never before seen outside China, will remain at the Southern California museum through March 11 before returning to Beijing.
Consisting of more than 100 pieces from the Beijing palace Cixi called home during the final years of her life, Empress Dowager includes numerous examples of intricately designed Chinese furniture, porcelain vases and stone carvings, as well as several pieces of Western art, rare in China at the time that she also collected.
Among them are a large oil-on-canvas portrait of herself she commissioned the prominent Dutch artist Hubert Vos to create.
Other Western accouterments include gifts from visiting dignitaries, among them British silver serving sets, German and Swiss clocks, a marble-topped table from Italy with inlaid stones in the shape of a chessboard and even an American-built luxury automobile.
"We already have a lot of scholarship on who she is and how she ruled China. But this show brings you a different angle," says exhibition curator Ying-Chen Peng, an American University art historian.
"This exhibition seeks to introduce you to this woman as an arts patron, as an architect, as a designer."
Anne Shih, who chairs the museum's board of directors, noted recently that she spent 10 years trying to persuade the Chinese government to lend Cixi's art.
Shih finally prevailed, however, when she emphasized this show would focus on art, not politics.
Although it does, it still becomes apparent to visitors what a formidable presence Cixi must have been as they enter a re-creation of her throne room to be greeted by a larger-than-life portrait of her covered in jewels and razor-sharp fingernail protectors as she glares ominously at her audience.
Although she led her country through numerous wars launched by foreign invaders during those years, she also found time to visit with dignitaries from other countries and to pursue her passion for art.
Her real artistic skill, however, lay not in making art but in envisioning works that would stand the critical test of time and then finding skilled artisans to create them.
"Her personal preference actually led to the further development of these very ornate designs," Peng says, observing some of the intricately carved, gold-inlaid furniture and hand-painted porcelain objects. "Nowadays when you go to antique shops, you can see quite a few pieces in this style. You can say she was a trendsetter."