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Curator's Choice: A Journey of Discovery and Friendship

Two near life-size portraits of Qing dynasty (1644–1911) empresses lay on a large lacquered red worktable in the Chinese painting conservation studio at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I was in awe. To see imperial portraits of this quality close up was breathtaking. It was an extra treat to see the reverse of the paintings, as conservators were remounting them to address their condition issues.

I put on my glasses for a closer look. The two portraits, depicting Empress Xiaoxian (1712–48) and Empress Xiaomu (d. 1808), are intensely vibrant, with gold highlights and incredible detail. I named Xiaoxian the ‘Chinese Mona Lisa’ on account of the dot of white pigment applied to her eyes to draw attention to her irises and the slightly upturned corners of her soft lips.

The portraits are shrouded in mystery. They came to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1950s as donations. Little was known about them. Parts of the vest and robe on Xiaoxian’s portrait had been repainted to create designs quite different from the originals—but why?

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May/June 2020
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