Luke S.K. Kwong tells the story of the American artist who was invited to paint the portrait of the celebrated Empress Dowager of China after the Boxer Rising.
When painter Hubert Vos arrived in China in 1905, he was no wide-eyed, first-time traveller: he had been there before. In 1899, fuelled by the desire to capture different racial types on canvas, he embarked on a voyage that took him to the Dutch East Indies, British Malaysia and, before reaching Korea and Japan further to the north, China.
Born in Maastricht, Holland, in 1855, Vos had studied art in Brussels, Paris, and Rome before opening his own studio in London. In 1892, he was appointed Holland's deputy commissioner for the Dutch exhibits at the Chicago World’s Fair, held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyages of Columbus. He grew to like the United States, a ‘Land of Hope and Opportunity,’ and embraced it as his adopted country.
Unlike his first trip, Vos’s second visit to China was sponsored by the Chinese government. He was to paint oil portraits of the ministers of the Foreign Office. Only on his arrival in Beijing was he then told that it was not the mandarins whom he would paint, but the empress-dowager herself, Cixi (1835-1908).
To observers outside China, Cixi was a political enigma shrouded in mystery and romance. She had risen to her esteemed position during the tumultuous times of the war with Britain and France (1858-60). In 1860, Beijing fell to the Anglo-French allied troops; the Xianfeng Emperor had fled to the safety of his imperial resort at Rehe, north of the Great Wall, where he subsequently died. A palace coup took place in 1861 to ensure that power would remain in the hands of the late emperor’s immediate family, including Cixi, who was mother of the child successor to the throne. She had been a key, if secluded (‘behind the curtains’) component of imperial rule ever since.