The Empress Dowager -- As an Artist

There is no genre that the Chinese artist has not attempted. They have treated in turn mythological, religious and historical subjects of every kind; they have painted scenes of daily familiar life, as well as those inspired by poetry and romance; sketched still life, landscapes and portraits. Their highest achievements, perhaps, have been in landscapes, which reveal a passionate love for nature, and show with how delicate a charm, how sincere and lively a poetic feeling, they have interpreted its every aspect. They have excelled too at all periods in the painting of animals and birds, especially of birds and flying insects in conjunction with flowers.
-- S. W. Bushell in "Chinese Art."

One day the head eunuch from the palace of the Princess Shun called at our home to ask Mrs. Headland to go and see the Princess. While sitting in my study and looking at the Chinese paintings hanging on the wall, two of which were from the brush of Her Majesty, he remarked:

"You are fond of Chinese art?"

"I am indeed fond of it," I answered.

"I notice you have some pictures painted by the Old Buddha," he continued, referring to the Empress Dowager by a name by which she is popularly known in Peking.

"Yes, I have seven pictures from her brush," I answered.

"Do you happen to have any from the brush of the Lady Miao, her painting teacher?" he inquired.

"I am sorry to say I have not," I replied. "I have tried repeatedly to secure one, but thus far have failed. I have inquired at all the best stores on Liu Li Chang, the great curio street, but they have none, and cannot tell me where I can find one."

"No, you cannot get them in the stores; she does not paint for the trade," he explained.

"I am sorry," I continued, "for I should like very much to get one. I am told she is a very good artist."

"Oh, yes, she paints very well," he went on in a careless way. "She lives over near our palace. We have a good many of her paintings. They are very easily gotten."

"It may be easy for you to get them," I replied, "but it is no small task for me."

"If you want some," he volunteered, "I'll get some for you."

"That would be very kind of you," I answered, "but how would you undertake to get them?"

"Oh, I would just steal a few and bring them over to you."

It is hardly necessary to assure my readers as I did him that I could not approve of this method of obtaining paintings from the Lady Miao's brush. However he must have told the Princess of my desire, for the next time Mrs. Headland called at the palace the Princess entertained her by showing her a number of paintings by the Lady Miao, together with others from the brush of the Empress Dowager.

"And these are really the work of Her Majesty?" said Mrs. Headland with a rising inflection.

"Yes, indeed," replied the Princess. "I watched her at work on them. They are genuine."

It was some weeks thereafter that Mrs. Headland was again invited to call and see the Princess, and to her surprise she was introduced to the Lady Miao, with whom and the Princess she spent a very pleasant social hour or two. When she was about to leave, the Princess, who is the youngest sister of the Empress Yehonala, brought out a picture of a cock about to catch a beetle, which she said she had asked Lady Miao to paint, and which she begged Mrs. Headland to receive as a present from the artist and herself.

During the conversation Mrs. Headland remarked that the Empress Dowager must have begun her study of art many years ago.

"Yes," said Lady Miao. "We were both young when she began. Shortly after she was taken into the palace she began the study of books, and partly as a diversion, but largely out of her love for art, she took up the brush. She studied the old masters as they have been reproduced by woodcuts in books, and from the paintings that have been preserved in the palace collection, and soon she exhibited rare talent. I was then a young woman, my brothers were artists, my husband had passed away, and I was ordered to appear in the palace and work with her."

"You are a Chinese, are you not, Lady Miao?"

"Yes," she replied, "and as it has not been customary for Chinese ladies to appear at court during the present dynasty, I was allowed to unbind my feet, comb my hair in the Manchu style, and wear the gowns of her people."

"And did you go into the palace every day?"

"When I was young I did. Ten Thousand Years" -- another method of speaking of the Empress Dowager -- "was very enthusiastic over her art work in those days, and often we spent a large part of the day either with our brushes, or studying the history of art, the examples in the books, or the works of the old masters in the gallery. One of her favourite presents to her friends, as you probably know, is a picture from her own brush, decorated with the impress of her great jade seal, the date, and an appropriate poem by one of the members of the College of Inscriptions. And no presents that she ever gives are prized more highly by the recipients than these paintings."

I had seen pictures painted by Her Majesty decorating the walls of the palaces of several of the princes, as well as the homes of a number of my official friends. Some of them I thought very attractive, and they seemed to be well done. They were highly prized by their owners, but I was anxious to know what the Lady Miao thought of her ability as an artist, and so I asked:

"Do you consider the Empress Dowager a good painter?"

"The Empress Dowager is a great woman," she answered. "Of course, as an artist, she is an amateur rather than a professional. Had she devoted herself wholly to art, hers would have been one of the great names among our artists. She wields her brush with a power and precision which only genius added to practice can give. She has a keen appreciation of art, and it is a pity that the cares of state might not have been borne by others, leaving her free to develop her instinct for art."

The Empress Dowager kept eighteen court painters, selected from among the best artists of the country, and appointed by herself, whose whole duty it was to paint for her. They were divided into three groups, and each group of six persons was required to be on duty ten days of each month. As I was deeply interested in the study of Chinese art I became intimately acquainted with most of the court painters and knew the character of their work. The head of this group was Mr. Kuan. I called on him one day, knowing that he was not well enough to be on duty in the palace, and I found him hard at work. Like the small boy who told his mother that he was too sick to go to school but not sick enough to go to bed, so he assured me that his troubles were not such as to prevent his working, but only such as make it impossible for him to appear at court. Incidentally I learned that the drain on his purse from the squeezes to the eunuchs aggravated his disease.

"When Her Majesty excused me from appearing at the palace," he explained, "she required that I paint for her a minimum of sixty pictures a year, to be sent in about the time of the leading feasts. These she decorates with her seals, and with appropriate sentiments written by members of the College of Inscriptions, and she gives them, as she gives her own, as presents during the feasts." Mr. Kuan and I became intimate friends and he painted three pictures which he presented to me for my collection.

One day another of the court painters came to call on me and during the conversation told me that he was painting a picture of the Empress Dowager as the goddess of mercy. Up to that time I had not been accustomed to think of her as a goddess of mercy, but he told me that she not infrequently copied the gospel of that goddess with her own pen, had her portrait painted in the form of the goddess which she used as a frontispiece, bound the whole up in yellow silk or satin and gave it as a present to her favourite officials. Of course I thought at once of my collection of paintings, and said:

"How much I should like to have a picture of the Empress Dowager as the goddess of mercy!"

"I'll paint one for you," said he.

All this conversation I soon discovered was only a diplomatic preliminary to what he had really come to tell me, which was that he had been eating fish in the palace a few days before, and had swallowed a fish-bone which had unfortunately stuck in his throat. He said that the court physicians had given him medicine to dissolve the fish-bone, but it had not been effective; he therefore wondered whether one of the physicians of my honourable country could remove it. I took him to my friend Dr. Hopkins who lived near by, and told him of the dilemma. The doctor set him down in front of the window, had him open his mouth, looked into his throat where he saw a small red spot, and with a pair of tweezers removed the offending fish-bone. And had it not been for this service on the part of Dr. Hopkins, I am afraid I should never have received the promised picture, for he hesitated as to the propriety of him, a court painter, doing pictures of Her Majesty for his friends. However as he often thereafter found it necessary to call Mrs. Headland to minister to his wife and children he came to the conclusion that it was proper for him to do so, and one day he brought me the picture.

The Empress Dowager not only loved to be painted as the goddess of mercy, but she clothed herself in the garments suitable to that deity, dressed certain ladies of the court as her attendants, with the head eunuch Li Lien-ying as their protector, ordered the court artists to paint appropriate foreground and background and then called young Yu, her court photographer, to snap his camera and allow Old Sol the great artist of the universe with a pencil of his light to paint her as she was.

One day while visiting a curio store on Liu Li Chang, the great book street of Peking, my attention was called by the dealer to four small paintings of peach blossoms in black and white, from the brush of the Empress Dowager. These pictures had been in the panels of the partition between two of the rooms of Her Majesty's apartments in the Summer Palace, and so I considered myself fortunate in securing them.

"You notice," said he, "that each section of these branches must be drawn by a single stroke of the brush. This is no easy task. She must be able to ink her brush in such a way as to give a clear outline of the limb, and at the same time to produce such shading as she may desire. Should her outline be defective, she dare not retouch it; should her shading be too heavy or insufficient, she cannot take from it and she may not add to it, as this would make it defective in the matter of calligraphy. A stroke once placed upon her paper, for they are done on paper, is there forever. This style of work is among the most difficult in Chinese art."

After securing these paintings, I showed them to a number of the best artists of the present day in Peking, and they all pronounced them good specimens of plum blossom work in monochrome, and they agreed with Lady Miao, that if the Empress Dowager had given her whole time to painting she would have passed into history as one of the great artists of the present dynasty.

One day when one of her court painters called I showed him these pictures. He agreed with all the others as to the quality of her brush work, but called my attention to a diamond shaped twining of the branches in one of them.

"That," said he, "is proof positive that it is her work."

"Why?" I inquired.

"Because a professional artist would never twine the twigs in that fashion."

"And why not?"

"They would not do it," he replied. "It is not artistic."

"And why do not her friends call her attention to this fact?" I inquired.

"Who would do it?" was his counter question.

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