This delicate image of the bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin, is made in the lightweight, hollow-core lacquer technique. The figure dates to the early Qing dynasty, roughly between 1650 and 1750, and portrays a feminized manifestation of the deity known as the White-Robed Guanyin, whom women prayed to when seeking fertility and other blessings.
Hollow-core lacquer is a centuries-old, complex, and time-consuming process used for Buddhist statues since at least the Sui-Tang period in the first half of the seventh century. This statue reveals an updated style through creative advancements associated with the Shen Shao’an Family Lacquer Workshop in Fujian province, pioneered during the early Qing. Notable features that support this attribution include the figure’s extraordinary physical lightness and the seemingly liquid flow of the drapery, which reveals new dexterity in modeling lacquer. Guanyin’s mantle, softly folded over her tall coiffure, gently enfolds her body in ripples of pliant cloth, ending in a flared hem that dances on a sea breeze. The wind also roils the waves beneath Guanyin’s feet, which refer to her home on a sacred island. Traces of gilding indicate that this Guanyin once shone with a golden aura.
When first offered to the Freer Gallery of Art, the statue was marred by late additions of shellac and lacquer and was therefore placed in the Freer Study Collection, which holds objects for research, including for scientific and conservation analysis and testing. In recognition of the masterful conservation work that reclaimed the integrity of the original lacquer surface, the statue has now been moved into the permanent collection.
The Freer Gallery also holds a Buddhist hollow-core lacquer statue from the early seventh century and one from the thirteenth century. With this addition, the Gallery has become a rare repository for documenting a thousand-year history of religious art made in the hollow-core lacquer technique.