Qing Dynasty Political Wives: Silda or Huma?

Washington loves nothing better than a good summer sex scandal. Thanks to Anthony Weiner, this year’s came early and was more salacious than usual. Thanks to Nancy Pelosi, it had a remarkably short lifespan.

Still, it led to lots of media navel-gazing about the fraught role of political wives. While Silda Spitzer seemed a pained, mute appendage at her husband’s confessional press conference three years ago, Huma Abedin has shown no such willingness to play to expectations. Good for her.

The Sackler’s latest exhibit, Family Matters, presents political wives of 18th century China–empresses, noblewomen, consorts–as cipher-like Sildas. The series of intricate portraits on silk shows the women laden with gold, pearls, and embroidered robes, each element of their dress a clue not to their individual fashion sense, but to their husband’s rank.

And while the men in this collection were painted from life, the women were painted unseen by the artists. Some were painted posthumously, commissioned by relatives for the purposes of ancestor worship; others were simply hidden from public view, so the painter conjured them up.

What are we to make of these ghostly women? One can only hope, from the beleaguered expression of some of the men, that a Huma lurked among them and kept her partner guessing.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court runs through January 16, 2012.

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