Buddhist Art at the Smithsonian

Onna Gott


A look into Buddhist art. For my midterm exhibition I chose to focus on Buddhist sculptures. Now originally I was just going to focus on Buddhist sculptures but with the feedback I received during the midterms, many wanted to see other types of Buddhist depictions. I wrestled with that expansion idea for a while but as I did more and more research I was able to finalize a few pieces worth adding to bring my exhibition together. For the final I chose to not only focus on yet expand the Buddhist works to include three sculptures, one drawing and one painting/ scroll. The sculptures include Gautama Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha in a Full Shrine, and Shakyamuni Buddha. All of these sculptures are on display online from the Smithsonian in the Freer Art Gallery Catalog. Each one depicts a golden colored Buddha in the traditional “touching the earth”. As for the drawing, Rising to the Occasion, it is one of the last remaining 6 drawings by Shakya depicting bodhisattva as he is awaiting his birth in the human realm, showing his readiness in his posture: feet on the ground, ready to rise to the occasion. The final piece is painting/ scroll, Power In Numbers, I believe the figure is known as Hvashang who is a legendary Chinese patron. He is set in a garden or some place of nature. He’s surrounded by trees and flowers and bushes. 

When it comes to the classic idea and visualization of the Buddha most think of the man sitting in the earth touching mudra and in the lotus seated position. He usually is in a robe and has a high bun, long ears and little detail in the face. Although those features are similar in most of my pieces, not all are the traditional looking Buddha. For the most part the Buddha is portrayed similarly in every piece I included in my exhibition with the traditional earth touching pose and classic bun and elongated ear look. Rising to the Occasion is the only one that stands apart from the tradition. The Buddha is sketched standing, covered in and surrounded by jewels which was unique based on material wealth having unimportance in Buddhism Culture. 

Rising to the Occasion

Tile: Rising to the Occasion

Creator: Kuber Singh Shakya

Material/ Medium: Ink, jeweler’s rouge, red and black pencil on paper 

Dimensions: Unknown

Date: 1950s

Culture: Nepal

Repository: now on display/ preserved by the Smithsonian Museum

Description: This image is of a drawing of the Buddha standing on his pedestal surrounded by plants and flowers. It is 1 of 5 remaining drawings by Shakya, and inspired a copper sculpture that now sits in a monastery in Bhutan. To create the sketch the artist used a pencil until he got it right and the grid we see on the paper itself was actually intentional. As we look at the drawing we notice the Buddha is almost standing and has his hands together as a symbol of peace. There are large earrings and what even looks like snakes behind him. The crown he wears is tall and looks like it would be covered in jewels. The detail in the clothes he is wearing and the jewelry which covers him head to toe is amazing, granted he inked in only half of the jewelry. As you wait to become the Buddha you are known as bodhisattva. He is awaiting his birth in the human realm. Here, his readiness is apparent in his posture: feet on the ground, ready to rise to the occasion.

Power In Numbers

Title: Power in Numbers

Creator: Unknown

Material/medium: Mineral pigments on sized cotton

Date: 19th Century

Culture: Central Tibet

Repository: now on display/ preserved by the Smithsonian Museum 

Dimensions: 144.8 x 78.7 cm (57 x 31 in)

Description: Power in numbers is acPower in numbers is a set of scrolls housed in the Tibetan Shrine room at the Smithsonian. I chose this Buddhist Art piece, and specifically this scroll because I was drawn to the figure who is sitting in the earth pose, but didn’t appear to be the Buddha. “Arhats” are recognized across Buddhist traditions as spiritually accomplished practitioners. This image is of two attendants accompanying the arhats. The larger man in the background is set above everyone else in the painting and seems to be smiling at what appears to be kids playing next to him. It looks like there is one warrior (probably the Buddhist Heavenly King, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who is usually shown holding a pipa) or other figure, no sure if it is a person or not, drawn below. I believe the figure is known as Hvashang who is a legendary Chinese patron. He is set in a garden or some place of nature. He’s surrounded by trees and flowers and bushes. This connected to some of my other pieces because Shakyamuni Buddha in a full shrine and Rising to the Occasion both had floral details surrounding the Buddha, encompassing the figure. The specific meaning in Buddhism culture is to live simply respecting the cycle and balance of nature itself. It is simple yet relaxing, living without waste. Those depictions bring peace and relaxation to the image itself. 

Gautama Buddha

Title: Gautama Buddha

Creator: Unknown (created in Central Tibet)

Medium/Material: Gilded Copper with pigment

Date: 14th century

Culture: Tibetan 

Repository: Freer Gallery of Art

Dimensions: H x W x D: 45 x 34 x 27 cm (17 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 10 5/8 in)

Description: There are many distinctive visual features on this sculpture of the Buddha. To start, the classic sitting position we all picture of the Buddha having his legs crossed and one hand resting on his leg with the other centered on his chest. It is known as the earth pose, which connects the Buddha and the ground as he is to reach enlightenment. It gives the feeling of searching for inner peace or enlightenment. Another aspect of this sculpture that stood out to me was the fact it is gold colored because in Buddhism I believe they try to steer away from material wealth and focus on more of the personal one. It seems odd they would choose to represent the Buddha in such an “expensive” look. There is also the depiction of elongated earlobes, which I had noticed in many of the other pieces as I was scrolling through. His face seems to be very relaxed and there isn’t much emotion shown. His hair is almost always represented in an updo or bun. It seems to have the only bit of color, being a deep violet color.

Shakyamuni Buddha in a full shrine

Title: Shakyamuni Buddha in a full shrine

Creator: Unknown (created in Mongolia)

Medium/Material: Silver, turquoise, gilt copper, coral, mother-of-pearl, and lapis lazuli

Date: late 18th- early 19th century

Culture: Mongolian

Repository: Freer Gallery of Art

Dimensions: H x W x D: 58.4 × 30.5 × 27.8 cm (23 × 12 × 10 15/16 in)

Description: In this depiction of the Buddha he is sitting on a very detailed pedestal and shrine, made of a gold color covered in what appears to be gemstones. There are flowers going up and down both sides of the arch behind the Buddha himself, and the centers seem to be red stones or gems, which also seems very expensive. They seem to surround the Buddha with wealth which I thought was unusual since that culture tends to steer away from material wealth. It could suggest that it is not specifically a Buddha but another Buddha like figure that is being represented. Underneath the pedestal there are animals of some sort, which look like dragons. Unlike the other statue, the actual sculpture of the Buddha is less colorful and in more of a “neutral” tone with one teal gemstone in the center of his forehead. He is in the classic “earth touching” mudra with one hand reaching down to the ground and the other holding what seems to be a bowl. Some features that I noticed that are similar are the elongated earlobes, bun updo, and robe attire. 

Shakyamuni Buddha

Title: Shakyamuni Buddha

Creator: Unknown (Central Tibet, Lhasa or Shigatse)

Medium/Material: Gilt copper alloy with pigments and turquoise

Date: mid 18th century

Culture: Tibetan 

Repository: Freer Gallery of Art

Dimensions: H x W x D: 55.9 × 39 × 28 cm (22 × 15 3/8 × 11 in)

Description: This sculpture of the Buddha stuck out the most to me because of the unique detailing. The body and pedestal seem to be less of a focus, being in an off gold, almost neutral color, while all of the focus seems to be on the neck, face and head in general. The face is in a bright gold color, with extreme detail of red lipstick, brown/ black eyebrows, a turquoise gem in the center of his forehead, and blueish-grey hair in of course the traditional updo style. He also has very detailed eyes which is something we don’t see in many sculptures of the Buddha. The Buddha is also depicted sitting in the classic “earth-touching position”  and appears to be holding a cup with one hand. 



“Gautama Buddha.” Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2 July 2021, https://asia.si.edu/object/S1997.28/. 

“Shakyamuni Buddha in a Full Shrine.” Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2 July 2021, https://asia.si.edu/object/S2011.10a-c/. 

“Shakyamuni Buddha.” Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 16 Sept. 2021, https://asia.si.edu/object/S2015.28.1a-b/. 

Smithsoniam. (2020, March 25). Buddhas across borders. Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/buddhas-across-borders/.

Tibetan buddhist shrine room. Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. (2020, August 31). Retrieved November 16, 2021, from https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/tibetan-buddhist-shrine-room/.


Dehejia, V. (n.d.). Buddhism and Buddhist Art. Metmuseum.org. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from https://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/hd/budd/hd_budd.htm. 
Tweed, Thomas A. “The spiritual origins of the freer gallery of art: religious and aesthetic inclusivism and the first American Buddhist Vogue, 1879-1907.” Journal of American and Canadian Studies, no. 24 (2006): 41+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed November 15, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A186436001/AONE?u=connc_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=a0d061e9.

Author: Onna Gott

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