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Western Perceptions of Chinese Buddhist Art, 1842-1925: The Failure to Connect Art and Religion

By Claire Fitzgerald


This senior thesis explores the process of separation between religion and art as it pertains to Chinese Buddhism in the eyes of the West during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The first evidence of the disconnection is found in the written accounts of three men who traveled to China after the end of the Opium War in 1842. Rev. John L. Nevius, John Francis Davis, and Rev. Justus Doolittle visited Buddhist temples, monasteries and sculptures and made genuine, but ultimately incomplete, efforts to understand the Buddhist religion. Their accounts focused on the aesthetics of Buddhist art and architecture but they attempted to connect Buddhism with what they observed. However, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. At the turn of the twentieth-century, two women, Sarah Pike Conger and Mrs. Archibald Little, spent time in China and wrote about their travels and experiences. Unlike the male travelers, they made no attempt to describe the religious merits of Buddhism, choosing instead to focus only on their perceptions of the aesthetic qualities of the Buddhist temples, monasteries and art works they encountered. Their writings, which omit any mention of Buddhism, demonstrated a further widening of the divide between the religion and Chinese art and architecture. The third, and final stage of the disconnection occurs when Chinese Buddhist art works are removed from their original sacred settings in Buddhist temples and monasteries, acquired by wealthy American collectors of Asian Art, including Benjamin Altman, Heber R. Bishop and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and eventually bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during the first quarter of the twentieth century. In the Museum's published catalogues of these collections, there was no mention of the objects' significance to the Buddhist religion. In addition, when they were exhibited in the Museum's galleries, a secular space, they were only identified as representations of Chinese art, with no information about their meaning or purpose within the religion. This total disregard for the importance of these objects to Buddhism stripped them of all spiritual meaning and severed the link between the original intentions of the artists who created them and their religion

Year: 2014
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