Portraits of the Three Emperors

In formal portraiture the Manchus closely followed an inherited pictorial code that dictated presentation of a royal figure in a seated posture, turned fully frontal, and rendered in total stasis at the centre of the composition. Any sense of facial expression or presentation of personality beyond a sense of solemn dignity and unflappable self-composure is eschewed. The sitter is divorced from a physical setting beyond the prop of a throne chair and carpet, in order to focus attention more fully on the figure, which is typically rendered with greater illusionism for the face than the body. Facial physiognomy was understood in Chinese culture as the outward manifestation of a person’s Heaven-endowed nature, and his or her countenance was considered synonymous with personal identity.

Before reflecting on the historical context of the formal portraits, it is worthwhile to point out that when seen in the confinement of a museum gallery, something of their original impact may be diminished. Only when they are envisioned at the centre of a multi-sensory spectacle, with heady, perfumed incense smoke veiling the sitters’ visages, with the sounds of rustling silk garments and tinkling jade girdle ornaments overheard as viewers kowtow and prostrate themselves before the paintings, and with their jewelled colours and accents of gold dancing in flickering candlelight do the portraits assume their intended magnificence. In the museum spotlight they exude a cool, academic polish and a superior technical perfection, but this is only one dimension of their power. At the centre of ritual performance these likenesses seemed even more spectacular and held even greater emotive force than they do in isolation.

Like formal portraits of earlier emperors, images of the Qing rulers were intended to be seen by only a small group of society’s élite. Before the twentieth century it was both anathema and criminally punishable for commoners to own images of current or former rulers. Although as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC—AD 220), Chinese emperors recognised that kings far to the west had their images stamped on widely circulated coins, Chinese tradition demanded that solo portraits of rulers, both statues and paintings, be used only for ceremonies with specially chosen audiences. In China, legitimate imperial descendents were expected to conduct the full range of rites associated with ancestor worship, an ancient set of values and rituals which presumed that death did not totally sever the relationship between the living and the deceased. Well cared for ancestors bring good fortune to their descendants, while ignored spirits wreak havoc as ghosts.

The ways in which the Qing emperors had themselves and their women presented rely heavily on earlier traditions but also involved a new synthetic Sino-Western painting style that hints at the cultural pluralism of the Qing empire and also reveals these emperors’ particular fascination with optical realism as a seemingly objective lens to document their place in history. The faces are modelled with subtle degrees of shading and Western perspective, although never enough to imbue the sitter with a sense of temporality as if he or she had been depicted at a certain time of day or under lighting specific to a particular place. The greatness of these formal portraits lies in their ability to invest the monarch with an appearance of permanence and monumentality befitting a Supreme Sovereign, the rightful recipient of Heaven’s Mandate.