‘Empress Dowager Cixi and attendants on a barge on Zhonghai Lake, Beijing’ China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904. Glass plate negative. (Courtesy of Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC-GR 243)

It’s one of the great political tropes throughout history: A female politician, a fiercely polarizing figure, works to stage the image she wants to present to the world. Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, or, in 1903, the Dowager Empress Cixi.

Cixi was 68 and had ruled China for more than four decades. In the West, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, she was most often depicted in glowering caricatures embodying every malign racist stereotype associated with the Yellow Peril. She had bad press at home, too, after a rule often characterized as reactionary and corrupt. And given the traditional seclusion of the Chinese court, nobody actually knew what she looked like.

Bring in the PR firms. In Cixi’s case, the advisers were a diplomat’s daughters, two young women named Derling and Ronling, who had spent most of their lives outside China with their families, studying with Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan and exploring the Parisian demimonde. Back in Beijing, they lived with Cixi (TSUH-si) for two years as companions, translators, advisers. And their brother, Xunling, happened to be an amateur photographer.

The tangible result of this relationship is a sheaf of photographs that represent a bizarre high point in the early development both of image branding and a certain kind of camp. On Saturday, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which holds more than half of the extant negatives, is opening a show called “Power/Play: China’s Empress Dowager,” displaying anew the face that Cixi chose to show to the world.

The images — of Cixi enthroned, of Cixi with her attendants, of Cixi in the guise of the Bodhisattva of Mercy — are being publicly shown here for the first time, but they’re far from unknown. Some have appeared in the many, many books about Cixi, starting in 1911, three years after her death, when Deling — by then married to an American and living in Hollywood – published the first of several memoirs about her life in the Imperial Court.

‘The Empress Dowager Cixi in snow accompanied by attendants.’ China, Qing dynasty, 18th–19th century. Glass plate negative. (Courtesy of Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC-GR 259)

Nor are they exactly unprecedented: “Power/Play” is a pendant to another current Sackler show, “Family Matters,” of painted portraits from earlier in the Qing Dynasty, and both shows demonstrate clear iconographic kinship.

But photography had a power that painting did not. More than simply sitting for a portrait, Cixi was staging her own version of her reality, offering a literal rather than metaphorical image of her symbolic power. Her program worked: These images have continued to represent her through the decades. Yet they also demonstrate that photography can be more revealing than its creators or subjects may have intended. Today, we see less the Bodhisattva of Mercy than an old lady play-acting while her empire decays around her.

“The audience that doesn’t show up here is the Chinese people,” says David Hogge, head of archives at the Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art and the current show’s curator.

The photographs weren’t meant for them. The formal images were a diplomatic tool intended to show Cixi’s openness to technology, innovation and the West. In the show’s first room, Cixi sits enthroned in state in various poses, seeming at first to offer a glimpse into the world of the Imperial Court. But she sits atop a Belgian carpet, leaning on a carved French lectern, between two pyramids of gleaming apples, hardly a staple Chinese fruit. “She’s clearly showing it’s cosmopolitan,” says Hogge.

She chose to wear bright patterned fabrics rather than the traditional dragon robes (seen in only one portrait), showing her feet, in decorative Manchu “horse-hoof” shoes, as women in portraits never did. Far from being a slave to tradition, she was developing her own image.

She was also focusing on a female audience. While Western diplomats calculated how to negotiate with her, she was having tea with their wives. One picture shows her holding hands with Sarah Conger, wife of an American envoy to China, who spent 55 days under siege during the Boxer Rebellion; Conger later wrote her own book about the Dowager Empress, depicting her as open-minded and charming. Another portrait was a gift to Alice Roosevelt, later Longworth, when she took part in a 1905 diplomatic mission through Asia.

A crown jewel in that diplomacy was the portrait Cixi sent to Theodore Roosevelt, which languished forgotten at Blair House until Hogge, after reading of its existence in old dispatches, managed to locate it two years ago. Unlike the other formal portraits, this one is cropped to show only her; her dress is hand-tipped with gold leaf, and she is looking directly into the camera — this image, after all, was destined for a fellow head of state. Her mouth is slightly askew. Hogge theorizes that she may have had a small stroke that left her face lopsided. This may have been the reason that after 1905, Xunling’s portraits abruptly stopped.

For domestic or even private consumption, by contrast, were tableaux vivants and scenes of daily life. Images of Cixi walking in the snow with her attendants look like family snapshots – the family being the photographer’s rather than that of the Dowager Empress. Many of the images include Deling and Ronling; their mother, Louisa Pierson (the daughter of an American businessman and his Chinese mistress); and the photographer’s little girl, who appears in several pictures as a de facto signature.

The tableaux — including Cixi being rowed on a boat on a lotus pond, enacting a scene from the fable “Madame White Snake” — lie somewhere between idealizing illustrations and parlor games. Beijing Opera was an integral part of the Qing court, and everyone would have recognized allusions that are opaque to most viewers today. In one pose, which Cixi strikes in two photographs, she gazes into a mirror while inserting an ornament into her hair. It’s a reference to the “Peony Pavilion,” an early scene in the life of a character who later becomes immortal. Every detail of these images is calculated to reinforce the association of the Empress Dowager with immortality.

But what kind of immortality? Historians are still divided on Cixi’s legacy. One of the main sources for her supposed corruptness, a juicy tell-all called “China Under the Empress Dowager,” written shortly after her death by two British residents of Beijing, was later shown to have been based on forgeries. In recent years, some scholars have bent over backward to rehabilitate her. She certainly wouldn’t be the first powerful woman to be maligned, or misunderstood.

In China, the negative view still holds sway — something only emphasized by the 2008 discovery that the Guangxu Emperor, who had died, a century before, only one day before Cixi did, had been poisoned in what looked suspiciously like Cixi’s last act of control. Yet a whole cottage industry has grown up around images, books and films of the Empress Dowager.

Indeed, almost as soon as the photographs were taken, copies were sold on the street. It wasn’t necessarily a gesture of respect. “The only other women whose images you could buy were actresses and prostitutes,” Hogge says.

Then as now, marketing is a two-edged sword. But more than a century after her death, Cixi is still getting press.

“Power /Play”