Imperial Exposures

Freer and Sackler Galleries

Photographic portraits of East Asian rulers 
The Alice Roosevelt Longworth Collection of Photographs from the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia

During her visits to the imperial courts of Asia, Alice Roosevelt Longworth collected a series of photographic portraits given to her as official diplomatic gifts.  In her 1933 autobiography, Alice recalls in detail the events surrounding each gift, providing valuable insight into the use of royal portraiture.  Furthermore, an examination of the different images of each ruler is instructive in understanding the diplomatic context of the era.

"The day after the lunch, the Empress sent me a very fine embroidered screen, a piece of gold cloth embroid­ered with white chrysanthemums, a lacquer box and a photograph of herself. On these trips of my youth, gifts seemed to be the rule and I was filled with greedy delight at getting them - it was such fun. In fact, I was a frankly unashamed pig. I did so love my "loot", as it was called in the family. In Japan I was given, as well as the Imperial presents, costumes and fans and souvenirs of all sorts".

— Excerpt from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Crowded Hours (New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933) 

The reception given to Alice in Tokyo was the most extravagant of her journey. The previous year, Japan had militarily bested Russia in a hard fought battle on land and sea, the first defeat of a Western power by an Asian country. The Japanese public was dizzy with pride, even as President Theodore Roosevelt himself conducted peace talks between the two countries in Portsmouth. The Japanese had every reason to believe that Roosevelt was acting on their behalf and that his support was crucial for a successful outcome of the peace talks.

The Japanese were therefore intent on proving their ability to stand on an equal footing on the world stage with the great powers. The images presented to Alice were therefore intended to show an enlightened but resolute ruler, in proper Western military garb, with a consort in splendid gown suitable for European courts and without a trace of Japanese decorative element.

In accordance with Western notions of civilised behaviour, the photographs are presented as a pair, intimating that the Japanese have embraced Christian notions of monogamy. In short, the President's daughter was presented portraits of a ruler who shared American values and could be a dependable diplomatic ally.

"The character and power of the Empress were palpable and though at the time we met her she was over seventy, one felt her charm. She by no means looked her age; her small, brilliant, black eyes were alert and piercing; they and her rather cruel, thin mouth, turned up at one corner, drooping a little at the other, made her face vivid and memorable".

"The next morning two court officials came to the Legation and presented me with a little black dog sent by the Empress and in the afternoon her photograph arrived. It is an excellent photograph, really like the 'old Buddha'. I thought so at the time when her face was fresh in my mind, and to look at it now, recalls vividly that day at the summer palace. A troop of cavalry clattered down the street to the Legation, sur­rounding an imperial yellow chair in which, by itself, was the photograph. It was in an ordinary occidental gilt frame, but the box that held it was lined and wrapped in imperial yellow brocade and the two offi­cials were of much higher rank, than those who brought the Pekinese".

— Excerpts from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Crowded Hours (New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933)

According to her 1933 autobiography, Alice’s audience with the Empress Dowager was relatively uneventful. The presentation of Cixi’s photograph the following day seemed to make more of an impression. This dramatic presentation suggests that, rather than a mere personal memento, the photograph was intended as an extension of Cixi’s imperial presence. The Qing court was attempting to navigate between traditional standards of imperial concealment and new expectations of a publicly accessible sovereign intimately identified with her subjects. The delivery of the Cixi portrait in a covered palanquin suggests that in spite of the obligation of diplomatic gifting, the court was not prepared to expose the imperial visage to public gaze. Cixi's priority was to maintain at all costs, the appearance of legitimacy - a unique challenge for a woman that many in China and abroad regarded as a usurping concubine. 

The portrait shows Cixi in a strictly frontal pose, corresponding to traditional Qing painted portraits. The photographer has dramatically lightened and smoothed her features on the negative, making her look decades younger than her near 70 years.

Cixi's gift to the daughter of the American president may have been to sway Roosevelt to support relinquishing China's reparations following the Boxer Rebellion. The US was considered one of the more sympathetic countries to China's situation and the most likely member of the Eight-Nation Alliance to forgive the heavy reparations which were damaging China's economy. Interestingly, indemnity reductions called for by Roosevelt were passed by Congress in 1908, the same year as Cixi’s death. 

"The Emperor and his son, who became the last Emperor, led a furtive existence in their palace alongside our Legation. A few days after we arrived, we lunched with them there in the European part of the building. We were received in an upstairs room and then the squat Emperor did not give me his arm, but took mine, and together we went in a hurried wobble down a very narrow staircase to an unnoteworthy, smallish dining room. We had Korean food, served in Korean dishes and bowls ornamented with the imperial crest. Those I used were afterwards presented to me, and at a farewell audience, the Emperor and Crown Prince each gave me his photograph. They were two rather pathetic, stolid figures with very little imperial existence ahead of them".

— Excerpt from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Crowded Hours (New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933) 

Earlier in the tour, while Alice was being lavishly feted in Tokyo, Secretary of War William Howard Taft was conducting private discussions with Japan's Prime Minister Katsura, essentially giving Japan free reign over Korea in exchange for Japan's assurances of non-interference in America's activities in Hawaii and the Philippines. Within two months of Alice's visit to Seoul, the Japanese Government issued the 1905 Protectorate Treaty, effectively eliminating Korea's ability to conduct its own diplomatic policies. The slide toward domination continued until Korea was formally annexed into the Japanese Empire in 1910 and Emperor Gojong deposed.  

These two portraits may be the last desperate attempt by the Korean government to project an image of entitled hereditary rulership - replete with a suitable heir - to the American President, who they saw as the sole defender of an independent Korea in the face of increasing Japanese intimidation and hegemony. Unfortunately by this time, the Americans had already determined Korea's fate within the context of its own Pacific ambitions.  Alice's 1933 recollection does not hide her own indifference to the Emperor's efforts at personal diplomacy - perhaps in hindsight it is her attempt to justify America's abandonment of its long-stated diplomatic commitments.

Credits: Story

Archivist — David Hogge
Research Assistant — Shelby Conley

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