This portrait presents the Xiaosheng Empress Dowager (1691—1771), the mother of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736—95), on her sixtieth birthday, a major celebration in China that signalled a person?s entrance into a new phase of life (the traditional calendar was based on a repeating sixty-year cycle). The Qianlong Emperor honoured his mother with a full-scale imperial celebration which included sutra recitations at the Yanshou si (Extended Long-life Temple), an elaborate building that had been specially constructed at the Summer Palace for the occasion. Priests chanted wishes for her longevity and lavish gifts were presented, including a set of nine Buddhist images from the Emperor. Such elaborate festivities were consistent with the Emperor’s personal devotion to his mother and his belief that the Imperial Mother, the de facto leader of all the palace women, was of greater importance to the State than the Imperial Wife and should therefore receive special commemoration.
This grand likeness follows the rigid codes — such as full frontality and elaborate dress — that were employed in all formal imperial portraits, including images made for ancestor worship. The Xiaosheng Empress Dowager is attired in full winter regalia, including a fur-trimmed crown decorated with five pearl-studded golden phoenixes, an ornament restricted to women of exalted rank. Her three earrings signify Manchu ethnicity.
Although contact between women and unrelated men, including court painters, was rare, the extreme fidelity of the Empress Dowager?s visage suggests that the Qianlong Emperor may have permitted a trusted artist to see her in person before completing the commission. The verisimilitude is convincing, down to the slight puffiness and sag of the Empress Dowager?s facial features that are appropriate for her age. Her sharp, clear eyes correspond with recorded testimony about the Empress Dowager?s exceptional lifelong health.
White dots on the pupils of her eyes indicating reflected light — a device also seen on the round beads of her court necklaces — are one of several indications that the artists who collaborated on this portrait possessed a solid proficiency in Western painting, and may have collaborated with Europeans to execute the face. It is likely that, in order to enhance their jewel-like intensity, some pigments were applied to the back of the silk to increase the richness of the colours applied to the front. No expense was spared in creating this portrait, which became a model for the almost identical image of a slightly more aged Empress Dowager that was created on her eightieth birthday.