I happened across an essay by a Taiwanese art historian that discusses the dating of the scroll and of the individual portraits, many of which were executed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who became a court painter of the emperor and introduced Western painting techniques into Chinese art. When the portraits were arranged in the handscroll by the emperor at a later date, many had already died, and thus the individual portraits in the scroll are based on models executed earlier, beginning in the 1750s, perhaps commemorating a promotion in rank.
The author of the essay suggests that the scroll was executed after 1776, when the emperor was sixty-six sui, by which time only 22 of his 41 consorts still survived. Indeed, the empress and the second consort had died already in 1745 and 1748.
According to the author, the death of close family members must have been unbearable for the emperor; the poems he wrote in this period reflects his grief. She writes: "It must have been difficult for him to confront the death and decay approaching his family members and himself."
In his old age (here we see him in court dress late in his reign) he particularly favored three consorts who were over 30 years younger and who had entered the imperial harem later than the other women portrayed in the scroll. The images of these three were rendered in an artistic style more Chinese than that represented by Castiglione and his assistants.
The scroll thus represents the memory, for this once-powerful emperor, of "days gone by, when he and his beloved consorts were young, when, perhaps the most exciting moments in their lives were the times they were granted unusual honor, status and power, such as his inauguration as emperor and each lady's promotion to a new and higher rank. As seen in the handscroll, all of the sitters' faces radiate joy and satisfaction. Altogether these faces form a beautiful picture, which not only served as a source of consolation for the emperor in private but also represented a document testifying to the Confucian virtue of exemplary family life."
This commemoration by the emperor reminds me of Goethe, titan of German letters, who at the age of 74, fell in love with the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, while visiting the rejuvenating spas of Karlsbad in August 1823. Goethe went so far as to have Duke Carl August approach Ulrike's mother and make an offer of marriage on Goethe's behalf for her daughter. There seems to have been no outright refusal; the acquaintance with the family simply tapered off.
Goethe left Karlsbad on September 5, and literally in the coach on the return to Weimar began composing the poems that comprise the "Trilogie der Leidenschaft." Stefan Zweig wrote a memorable essay on the composition: "Goethe zwischen Karlsbad und Weimar, 5. September 1823" (in Sternstunden der Menschheit).
The love as expressed in the trilogy (again, the Poem Hunter offers lovely translations) is of a more profound nature from Goethe's earlier poetic passions: at 74 he was nearing the end of his life, and his feelings for Ulrike reminded him of all that was now past: his youth, his achievements, all that he had been granted in his life. The first poem, "An Werther," calls up this ancient ghost ("Noch einmal wagst du, vielbeweinter Schatten,/ Hervor dich an das Tageslicht"). The second, "Elegie," begins with lines from his drama Tasso that remind us of Goethe's ability to turn feeling into poetry: "Und wenn der Mensch in seiner Qual verstummet/ Gab mir ein Gott zu sagen, was ich leide." The third, "Aussöhnung" (reconciliation), reminds us that life goes on, even if diminished: "Und so das Herz erleichtert merkt behend,/ Daß es noch lebet und schlägt und möchte schlagen." Goethe was approaching his death, something he did not like to be reminded of, but in the meantime he was still alive. In the next years he turned to finishing works that had occupied him for decades: Wilhelm Meister and Faust. At the end of Faust, it is a young woman who intercedes for his soul.