Editors' pick

Family Matters: Portraits From the Qing Court

Artifacts/Memorabilia, Painting/Drawing

Editorial Review

Art review: ‘Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court’

By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery describes the 16 paintings on view in its latest exhibition as portraits, but it’s more helpful to think of them as ID badges. Giant ID badges. Painted on hanging silk and paper scrolls, they are, for the most part, the size of bedsheets.

That characterization comes courtesy of curator Stephen Allee, who used it while leading reporters on a walk-through of the small but intriguing “Family Matters: Portraits From the Qing Court.” Along with a handful of jewelry pieces and one robe, the show features beautiful — and, in this age of Photoshop, surprisingly faithful — likenesses of members of the Qing dynasty, the royal family of Manchu origin that ruled China from 1644 to 1912.

How faithful? In one early-18th-century rendering of Yinxiang, a.k.a. Prince Yi, the son of the Qing emperor Kangxi, you can clearly make out pockmarks on the subject’s cheeks, the result of smallpox. The prince wears his scars proudly, a visible symbol of his good fortune in surviving the disease.

Other symbols are a little trickier to read, but no less telling.

Along with the pictures of specific individuals — emperors Qianlong and Hongtaiji, princes Xun and Guo, ladies Wanyan and Hejia, all of them related by blood or marriage — a third of the paintings depict subjects whose names are unknown: noblemen and women whose identities have been lost to (or obscured by) the mists of time.

What you can tell, however, is very specific information about their rank in the Qing court.

Start by looking at the hem of a subject’s robe. The number of colors used in the ornamental trim gives you a hint about one’s station in life. Five colors indicates the highest rank. Two, not such a muck-a-muck. Now, look for dragons in the design of the cloth. Five claws means a real bigwig. A front-facing dragon, as opposed to a side-facing one? More powerful still. If you’re the emperor, even your gold buttons will have dragons on them.

To get a clue as to the status of a woman, whose rank was intimately tied to her husband’s, count the number of downward-facing phoenixes she wears in her headdress. And those long fingernails you’ll spot — and we’re talking about the men here — they tell you that their owners haven’t seen manual labor in a long time. One exception is the portrait of an unidentified nobleman who still wears an archer’s thumb ring, a possible sign of past military service.

Several paintings are formal, so-called “ancestor portraits,” made posthumously and for ritual use. Prior to conservation by the museum, you would have even seen incense smudges on them, from the altars over which they hung. Others were painted from life — you can usually tell the difference — and depict members of the court at leisure, or at least in a highly staged evocation of “leisure.” Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735-1796) is seen in one, on horseback, after knocking off for the day. A fashionable Western-style watch, reading 4:45 — p.m., presumably, the start of happy hour — hangs from his belt.

As esoteric as the subjects’ trappings are, the most interesting thing about the show is how relatable it is, deep down, to life in the power-conscious world of wonky Washington. As Allee noted, every time one of the court would receive a promotion, a brand-new portrait would have to be painted, with new symbols reflecting the subject’s subtly altered status.

To anyone who has ever worn a lanyard around his or her neck, that will surely sound familiar.

The story behind ‘Portrait of Yinti, Prince Xun (1688-1755), and Wife’

“Family Matters” contains two portraits of Yinti, known as Prince Xun, who was the 14th son of the Qing emperor Kangxi.

You read that number right. A Qing ruler might easily father as many as two dozen sons (out of 40 to 50 children) by up to 30 or so wives and consorts. A typical royal bride was often dead by 30, arguably from the rigors of childbirth. One of the portraits of Xun seems to be a wedding portrait, depicting him as an old man next to a much younger bride (possibly Lady Jinse, whom he wed when she was all of 14).

But Xun’s worn-out expression might not just be age. Years earlier, while Xun — his father’s favorite — was away on a military campaign, his older brother ascended to the throne in his place, stripping Xun of his princely rank and placing his little brother under house arrest for 13 years.

After his release, Xun was rehabilitated, rising to the rank of second-degree prince, as his robes indicate in his double portrait with his child-bride. But the toll of family intrigue and court politics can be seen on his face.

— Michael O’Sullivan