Artwork Inspired by the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City

Students in Gail Lake’s Studio Art and Introduction to Art classes were recently given a unique assignment. They had to create a piece of art inspired by items they had seen during a recent trip to the the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Each student was given complete freedom in terms of what she chose to depict and the medium she used. As a result of this creative liberty, the works the students created range from portraits to kimono sketches to pieces showcasing traditional Chinese symbols and characters. They translated the knowledge they gained during the field trip into artwork that echoes Chinese history but with a modern twist.

During their visit to the exhibition, students learned about the symbolism of the animals, birds, and objects found on the ornate robes and jewelry the empresses wore. They also heard about how important different colors were and how they were incorporated into aspects of the Empresses’ lives. For example, each Empress wore a red wedding dress with elaborate embroidery featuring the Chinese characters for “double happiness” since red is a symbol of joy and the characters stand for the hope the couple will have a successful marriage. Students also had to analyze what different images said about these women. The students were interested to see the ways individual artists painted and drew the likenesses of these imperial women. Molly G. ‘19 commented how the portraits at the beginning of the exhibition were quite flat compared with the more life-like faces seen in paintings of later Empresses. The tour guide explained that as time passed, painters were influenced by European techniques and also more Western artists began painting the Empresses.

China’s Empresses were women who, from the age of thirteen, lived their lives in a city walled off to the world. They were women who still exercised a degree of power even within the constraints of their environment. The students’ finished work will hang in different places around The Academy, serving as an homage to them and their unconventional yet fascinating lives.