“A Very Fine and Unusual Statue”: Fruits of the Freer Gallery Field Expeditions in China

Photographs of the Cosmic Buddha. The first week of May marks the 93rd anniversary of the opening of the Freer Gallery of Art. Although the Freer is known as an art museum today, it once also sponsored archaeological field work. When the Freer Gallery’s building opened to the public on May 2, 1923, Carl Whiting Bishop, associate curator of archaeology, had already left for China on February 12 to lead a joint expedition with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Freer’s field expeditions were intended to conduct archaeological excavations and to investigate Chinese history, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s mission for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithsonian Annual Reports from the 1920s and 1930s record the ups and downs of the field work in China, from the success of excavations under Chinese archaeologist Ci Li in Shanxi Province in 1927 to the end of field work in 1934 due to political unrest.

Documents in the Freer Field Expedition Records, part of  the Smithsonian Institution Archives collections, record the Freer’s foray into archaeology. Correspondence between Bishop and John Ellerton Lodge, the first director of the Freer Gallery, discusses Bishop’s initial field expedition in 1923 and subsequent field work. Bishop stated in a letter dated September 5, 1923, that the primary purpose of the expedition was “the beginning of scientific excavation in China,” but in the unsettled political environment, he found it difficult to obtain the necessary permission for excavations. Instead, Bishop and his colleague Archibald Wenley (later director of the Freer) turned to other activities, such as exploring potential sites for future excavation and improving their knowledge of Chinese.

Archibald Wenley in China.

Letter from Carl Whiting Bishop to John Ellerton Lodge. While in China, Bishop also looked for archaeological objects and artworks to add to the Freer Gallery’s collection. In a letter to Lodge dated December 21, 1923, he added a postscript about a recently acquired piece, “a very fine and unusual statue,” and promised to send Lodge photographs and a fuller description. Bishop later catalogued the expedition’s acquisitions between 1923 and 1925, including bronzes, pottery, paintings, and sculptures, in an unpublished manuscript. According to the catalogue, the statue mentioned in the letter was a headless stone Buddha purchased from Taku Shanfang in Peking (Beijing) on December 23, 1923, for 4,800 Mexican silver dollars. Bishop documented the statue in the catalogue with several photographs of the intricate carvings on the front and back.

Description of the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes In the same letter that mentioned the purchase of the Buddha, Bishop discussed his progress in obtaining an excavation permit. As part of an intellectual cooperation effort between the American and Chinese governments, Bishop became the Adviser to the Chinese Government in archaeology. This position allowed the Freer Gallery to sponsor archaeological excavations in China. The Freer Gallery funded several excavations in the following years, but the excavated material stayed with the Freer’s partner institutions in China.

Many objects that Bishop purchased in China, including the stone Buddha, are still in the collection of the Freer Gallery. The limestone sculpture’s official designation in the object record is “Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence,” and it is nicknamed the “Cosmic Buddha.” The Buddha is currently on display in the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition, “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D.” Documentation of the Cosmic Buddha has certainly improved since Bishop’s black-and-white photographs. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office has created a 3D model of the statue, so anyone can access close-up views from the Internet or use a 3D printer to make their own Cosmic Buddha.

Related Resources

A Quest for the First Asian Employee,” The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archvies

The Cosmic Buddha,” Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Accession 02-051, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Field Expedition Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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