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9.2: Joseon Dynasty (Late 15th century - 1868)

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    Joseon (also transcribed as "Choson") was a period of scientific and technological inventions and cultural efflorescence. Founded in 1392 by Yi Seong-gye[1] and lasting until 1910, Korean artistic identity developed as distinct from China and Japan. In the early Joseon period (the 14th to the mid-17th century), strong political, economic and cultural ties with the Ming Dynasty in China meant Chinese influence exerted itself in most aspects of Korean culture. The fall of the Ming Dynasty in China during the mid-17th century freed Korea from its hold and let Korean intelligentsia (including artists) reconsider its borrowed traditions and search for a new cultural identity. Unique Korean identity developed in Joseon painting, specifically in the landscape, genre scene, and portraiture.


    Landscape Painting  

    An Gyeon

    For centuries, Korean landscape paintings were influenced by schools and pictorial traditions in China. However, in the eighteenth century (the late Joseon period), Korean artists began their style, depicting Korean sceneries in their visual lexicon. One of the most celebrated early Joseon paintings is Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land by An Gyeon (active 1440-1470). Although An Gyeon had left his style by painting the textures of the rocks more sharply and by composing the rock formation more dynamically, most of the scholarship of this painting revolves around its relationship with its Chinese model and works by Guo Xi (1020-1090) from the Northern Song period.[2] Since An Gyeon used methodology four centuries old, the term "antiquarianism" has been applied to An Gyeon and Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land (2.6.1).[3] In reality, it is difficult to determine how much An Gyeon was committed to this antiquarian style since he was a court painter who painted this specifically under the auspices of his patron, Prince Anpyeong, an avid collector of Chinese paintings.


    A mountain scene with a hidden peach tree grove
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land (1447, handscroll, ink and color on silk, 106.5 x 38.7 cm) Public Domain


    The strong Chinese influence in early Joseon landscape paintings is not surprising; Joseon Korea and Ming China had solid political, economic, and cultural relations. Chinese influence permeated every aspect of Korean society as Korea was considered a vassal state. Two historical events propelled Korea into a different intellectual, cultural, and artistic direction in the first half of the seventeenth century. The waning influence of the crumbling Ming dynasty led to the establishment of the ruling Qing dynasty under the control of the ethnic Manchu. The Koreans were defeated by the Manchus, who ended any ties between Korea and China. These events had a tremendous impact on the Korean psyche; not only was Korea humiliated by the defeat, but it also lost its long-time ally and mentor. As Korea recovered from the Manchu defeat, it became directionless. Koreans considered the Manchus inferior, and despite capitulating to them, Koreans did not wish to emulate them. In their nadir, Korean intelligentsia and artists rebuilt their sense of identity in a vacuum, turned inward, and looked into itself  – its land, its people, its customs, its language -- as the sources of inspiration and exploration.

    Silhak (practical learning) was a social reform movement and school of thought in the late Joseon period (starting in the late 17th century); focused on real problems and practical issues in society, including land reforms, taxation and, standards of living. Culturally, the intelligentsia directed their energy towards the study of Korean history, geography, and language. These activities required scholars to use their critical thinking skills to closely observe and engage with the world around them. Visual artists were a part of this larger silhak movement as they became interested in observing the lives of Korean people, their likenesses, and activities, resulting in more life-like portrait painting and interest in genre painting. Additionally, instead of copying Chinese landscape paintings that were fantastical or foreign to them, Korean artists started painting the environment they saw in front of them, -- the vistas of Korean landscapes.

    Based on the Chinese modes of operation, landscape paintings were not necessarily based on naturalism from direct observation. In Chinese painting traditions, student artists were trained by copying works of famous masters. The value of an ink painting did not necessarily stem from the image representing the natural world one saw it. Instead, it was valued on how well an artist composed the poetry, the calligraphy, and the image and how well those three components interacted. A painting might be valued as a representation of the artist's movements. How well he wielded his brush laden with ink; a result of the solid Chinese calligraphic tradition of the landscape painting.  Artists also did not necessarily paint from actual scenery; the painted scenes might be places in the artist's imagination or essential sites in Buddhism, Daoism, or other Chinese sources.


    Jeong Seon

    The most significant and influential landscape artist of late Joseon was Jeong Seon (1676-1759). As the proponent of "true-view landscape painting" (jingyeong sansuhwa),[4] he advocated for artists to paint actual, local Korean sceneries. Throughout his life, Jeong Seon traveled to different areas in Korea and painted the views he encountered. To art historians and art lovers of the 21st century, this practice may seem self-evident; after all, in the 19th century, the French Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir painted their landscapes on site, en plein air. In 18th century Korea, this naturalistic approach was not at all typical.

    The landscape Jeong Seon painted is significantly different from An Gyeon's painting and his fantastical layers upon layers crisscrossing through time, leaving doubt there is a real place underneath them all. Jeong Seon's most celebrated work from 1734 Complete View of the Mount Geumgang (2.6.2) is Korea's most famous beauty spot.

    Mountain scene
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Complete View of Mount Geumgan (1734. Hanging scroll, ink and light color paper, 130.7 x 94.1 cm) Public Domain

    Resemblances are seen when comparing an actual mountain range photo (2.6.3) to Jeong Seon's painting. In this context, Jeong Seon's focus represented Korean scenery accurately and was revolutionary as it broke with the Chinese traditions.

    In Complete View of the Mount Geumgang, Jeong Seon depicted the mountains from high above, giving the viewers an aerial view. The sharp peaks and serrated edges filled with sparse vegetation are identifiable as the unique features of Mount Geumgang. The distinct jaggedness of Mount Geumgang's crystalline formation is recognizable and similar to those in Jeong Seon's painting. The artist was familiar enough with Mount Geumgang that he managed to capture its essential characteristics even as he combined it with his bird-point-of-view conception. Jeong Seon's familiarity with the mountains comes from his close observations and careful sketches and notations of the site. According to records, Jeong Seon made a minimum of three trips to Mount Geumgang between 1711 and 1751; he made multiple paintings that were then compiled into albums.[5]   The last two lines of Jeong Seon's poem written at the top right of the painting summarizes Jeong Seon's commitment to "true-view landscape painting" beautifully:

    This careful sojourn, on foot through Mount Geumgang,
    How can it be compared with the view from one's pillow?

    A mountain scene with rock and shrubbrush
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Norimaki, Sejon Peak, Mount Geumgang (2006) Public Domain


    Genre Painting  

    Genre painting is a style of art that depicts scenes of everyday life. 

    Kim Hongdo

    In addition to their interests in Korean landscape sceneries, Korean artists also became keen observers of human activities around them. Kim Hongdo (1745 - after 1806) was a versatile court painter who was adept in producing many types of paintings, including true-view landscapes. However, his most celebrated work is a late 18th century series of 25 genre scenes compiled in an album.[7] In this series, Kim Hongdo depicted ordinary people at work and leisure, living their daily life wherever they were: at home, on the street, by the river, at the fields, and school. He captured the details of tools and trades of Korean occupations from Joseon society: fishermen, farmers, roof-tilers, weavers, laundry-workers, grass-mat makers, laborers, tavern-owners, blacksmiths, and village teachers. Although the common people (sangmin) listed here constituted 75% of the population,[8] in the strict hierarchy of Joseon society, they occupied the second-lowest tier and were seldom represented visually. Kim Hongdo's album is important in art history and cultural anthropology, recording the customs and habits of Korean people in the eighteenth century.

    These two images from King Hongdo's album are examples of his capturing everyday lives with frankness and humor. The exuberance of the dancing boy (2.6.4) is represented through the fluid lines of his gestures and movements. The boy is in a mid-jump with one foot up in the air while the other barely touches the ground. The viewers can feel the joy that this boy exudes as he smiles or laughs while he dances. The sextet of musicians is seated in a circular formation, mimicking the curved line of the boy's left arm; these repeated implied lines underscore the dynamism of the overall composition.  Kim Hongdo took advantage of the circular placement and used it to show the musicians from different angles; some are shown from the back, others are at the three-quarter view, and three are painted frontally. This changing view breaks the monotony of representing six seated figures. The musicians are enjoying themselves as they watch the boy while at the same time being engrossed in playing their instruments.     


    A boy dancing in front or a small band of men playing instruments
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): A Dancing Boy from Album of Genre Paintings (1745, Album leaf, ink and color on paper, 26.8 x 22.7 cm) Public Domain

    While A Dancing Boy is about leisure activity, Laundry (2.6.5) is about work, but it is no less exciting and lively. Three women are doing laundry by the river; two are energetically beating on the fabric while one is standing on the shallow part of the river, pulling and twisting her laundry. Their sleeves and skirts are pulled up to prevent them from getting wet. Slightly behind them, a mother is braiding her hair, her two combs neatly laid out on the rock in front of her. A toddler clinging to the hair-braiding mother; his hand reached towards her left breast, signaling his impatience for his next meal.

    People washing their clothes on rocks at a river
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Laundry from Album of Genre Paintings (1745, Album leaf, ink and color on paper, 28.0 x 23.9 cm) Public Domain


    Viewers have no idea where A Dancing Boy takes place because the background is blank. In contrast, Kim Hongdo included background information in Laundry, the setting on a river's edge, a rock jutting out from the right, sheltering the laundering women. In the Neo-Confucian Joseon society, the world of men and women was separated and delineated. The scene was a snippet of Joseon's women's world. A protected and secluded area, yet someone broke the rule and intruded into this space. The intruder is the man at the top right, slightly hidden behind the jutting rocks. His high vantage point affords him unhindered views of these women who are not aware they are being watched. Metaphorically, this high vantage point may have pointed to the man's high status in society as confirmed by his gat (cylindrical horsehair hat), an attire that only the nobility could wear.[9] Nevertheless, he is a Peeping Tom whose unsavory intention was represented by hiding his face behind a fan.


    Yi Am

    Yi Am (unknown) developed his style, departing from the common fixed influences of the prevalent Chinese style. His true-view specialty was the small, playful animals he painted. He also incorporated the Four Gentlemen in his work, adding a pine or plum tree, the fine-leafed bamboo, or the orchid. Dogs were not part of the usual spirit animals and an animal Yi Am frequently incorporated into his paintings. In Hwanjogujado (2.6.6), the puppies sit in the foreground supported by the large, flowering plum tree (one of the Four Gentlemen) balancing the work. The magpies in the tree repel bad luck, while the butterfly represents happiness. The painting created with ink and light color on paper is highlighted with black, bringing essential parts of the work to the foreground.    

    3 birds in a tree with two puppies sleeping at the base
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Hwanjogujado (First half 16th century, ink and light color on paper, 86 x 44.9 cm) Public Domain


    Mogyeondo (2.6.7) portrays the mother dog with her soulful eyes and her puppies, one barely visible. The red collar accents the horizontal plane with the tree anchoring the vertical plane. The usual symbols of other animals and plants are not included in the painting, demonstrating the artist's departure from a defined style. Yi Am drew the dog by brushing a thinned and light ink and adding darker ink for contrast. When the ink dried, he added another highlighting. On the older branches of the tree, he used a dry brush technique to create a rougher surface.   

    a dog and a puppy sitting at the base of a tree
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Mogyeondo (First half 16th century, ink and light color on paper) Public Domain


    Portrait Painting

    The increase of portrait paintings in the Joseon period was closely tied to the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology. Neo-Confucianism stressed the importance of filial piety and ancestor worships with specifically prescribed rituals. Ancestor portraits were made not only as ritual objects; they were also the embodiment of ancestors' wisdom to be venerated and contemplated for guidance and inspiration. The pride in a family lineage led to their displays in ancestral family halls and descendants' preservation of the portraits. Most Joseon portraits were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they depict scholar-officials.[10] As a marker of achievement and respectability in society, the subjects are typically middle-aged men; in the specific category of portraits of elderly officials (kiro-do), the sitter would be around sixty or seventy years old.[11] 

    The standard portrait pose was sitting on a cushion on the floor or a high-backed chair and painted from a three-quarter view. The hands were often invisible under long sleeves and rested on the sitter's lap. The attire typically identified the sitter's rank in the Joseon government to different degrees. In Portrait of a Scholar-Official in a Pink Robe (2.6.8), the scholar-official is wearing an everyday attire; nevertheless, the light pink color of his robe indicates his high rank.[12] More precise information is seen in formal clothing. For instance, in his portrait, Yun Dongseom wore a formal outfit with embroidered rank badge of two cranes denoting that he was a third rank official or higher – a very high position -- in Joseon civil service.[13] 


    sitting portrait of a man wearing white robes and a black hat
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Portrait of a Scholar-Official in a Pink Robe (19th century, Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 118.7 x 53.9 cm) Public Domain


    closeup of a man with a black hat
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Close-up of scholarPublic Domain


    The background of Joseon portraits is very plain; the faces become the focal point. Joseon portrait artists took pride in recording minute facial features to capture the likeness of the sitter. The realism and its attention to detail resulted from the influence of the Silhak and "true-view landscape" movement that inspired artists to observe their subject matters closely. The profusion of lines surrounding his eyes indicates Yung Dongseom (2.6.10) is an older man compared to the scholar in the pink robe. More interestingly, the artist also painted very fine veins in the area of Yung's eyelids, proving that the artists observed his face intensely to capture his distinctive facial feature. The unidentified scholar in the pink robe has a relatively large nose with freckles or age spots. 


    sitting portrait of a man in a black robe and black hat
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Portrait of Yun Dongseom (1790-1805, Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 133 x 77.2 cm) Public Domain

      Yung Dongseom also has age spots (2.6.11), but they are darker than those of the scholar in the pink robe, and they are located on his temple and cheek. The eyebrows of the two men also tilt at different angles. The little details highlight the uniqueness of individual faces, and the artists' meticulous attention to details lends realism to Joseon portraiture. 

    closeup of man wearing a black hat
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Close up of Yun DongseomPublic Domain


    Kim Myeong-guk

    Kim Myeong-guk (circa 1600-after 1662) was originally an official painter for the court. He quickly became known for his unique and individualistic works, a new kind of artist who did not follow the defined ideals, painting in a style that would be considered "modern" today. His use of a brush was unheard of, broad, bold strokes at times or an image created with a few minimalist strokes. One writer said of him, "Kim did not merely follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. Kim Myeong-guk was an ingenious painter who was never restricted by formality, but instead transcended existing styles with his free will."[14] However, some of his fellow painters defined him as a carefree drunk and eccentric, and others thought he just had an artistic personality tempered by obstinacy. His landscape paintings were influenced by elements of Buddhism, while his portraits represented his free and unconventional style.

    Bodhidharma (2.6.12) is crossing a river holding a broken branch as he travels through Asia. Kim Myeong-guk freed himself from restrictions and used ink and a brush to make bold brushstrokes to paint the image of the pious man. The robe is only in outline, unusual during this period. The simplistically inked face seems to have a distinctive light shining down, giving the man a gentle, peaceful look.

    a person crossing a river holding a branch and wearing a robe
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): BodhidharmaPublic Domain

    Dalmado (Bodhidharma) (2.6.13) is a similar image; shoulders brushed with broad strokes forming the image with the delicately defined face. Kim Myeong-guk used little ink on his brush, so the details of the face receded, more mystical and contemplative. 


    pen and ink closeup of a mans face
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Bodhidharma Dalmado (1643, ink on paper, 83 x 58.2 cm) Public Domain         

    Giryeodo (2.6.14) portrays the Bodhidharma riding a donkey down the challenging mountain track, the trees in the background against the muted, mottled landscape. He used the bolder strokes as accents to the image of the man hunched over and the donkey searching for a pathway. A detailed landscape background was common in Korean artwork; however, Kim Myeong-guk freed himself from the detail with an illusionary landscape. The characteristics of the man and donkey are somewhat abstracted; however, they appear more detailed against the conceptualized trees in the background.

    a man on a horse riding through the country
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Giryeodo (1650) Public Domain 


    Minhwa Folkart

    Minhwa is Korean art created by ordinary or itinerant artists during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Minhwa meant "painting of the people." The artists painted popular images generally based on everyday life, mythology, local stories, art for ordinary people. The tiger, carp, flowers, and other natural figures became the basis for the artwork painted on canvas or paper. Some of the artists were generally untrained and traveled from place to place, and like many artists today, they set up their work at local festivals or town centers. They would sell existing work or created commissions for locals based on the legends or symbols of the community. Although some of the work was produced by master painters and other works by amateurs, the paintings were straightforward and specific, frequently naïve and unrefined. The artists were not restricted by formal constraints and used vivid colors to convey hope or good wishes. As the style grew, defined artists adopted the methods.

    The artists generally used traditional hanji paper made from layers of wet paper and glue painted between; Korean paper was famous for its quality and durability throughout Asia. Colors and images followed part of a visual lexicon, its meanings understood at that time and even today. Each image or color carried a specific meaning for current and future possibilities. "These images were not just decoration but embodied and conveyed hopes for the protections and good fortune that they could bring."[15] The five main colors artists used were based on natural elements and their representation.

    The Four Gentlemen referred to four common plants; bamboo, orchids, apricot or plum blossoms, and chrysanthemums found in most paintings. The plant representations were based on the attributes of Confucianism, moral characteristics embodied in the images. The Minhwa images were widespread and found in most paintings using ink and color washing. Bamboo represented integrity and consistency as an evergreen plant. The beautiful configuration of the orchid flower projected loyalty and integrity. The fruit tree blossoms of apricot and plum bloom in the late winter snow characterized one's indomitable spirit. Chrysanthemums symbolized constancy, a flower blooming in late autumn despite a cover of frost.

    The ordinary, anonymous artists frequently painted deer, turtles, clouds, bamboo, or another of the ten longevity symbols favored by people to hang in their homes, expressions of the common people, and their ideals. Colors were also important, and the yellow and brown used in these images represented the earth, and black embodied water. The roughly drawn painting of the deer is (2.6.15), represents long life and friendship. With a limited color palette and exaggerated stance, the deer is decorated with chrysanthemums, one of the Four Gentlemen representing autumn. The images were frequently unconventional in the design and lack of formality.


    a deer with polka dots and horns
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Jangsaeng hwarakdo (unknown) Public Domain 

    At one time, Korea had a substantial population of tigers, mostly extinct today. Tigers lived in the hills and mountains, frequently entering the villages searching for livestock, also presenting a danger to the population. The tiger was respected yet generated fear, a sacred animal abundantly seen in Korean paintings, especially in minhwa folk art. A tiger can chase away the evil spirits and be considered a courageous protector. The tiger (2.6.16) sits under the tree; his head twisted awkwardly to view the rabbit on its back, a symbol of fertility. The painting is monotone with black accents for the spots and the few spots of red adding to the fierce look, red the symbol for fire.

    a tiger with black polka dots
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Tiger (unknown) Public Domain 



    [1] Based on the family name of its ruling dynasty, the period may also be referred to as the “Yi Dynasty.”

    [2] Ahn, Hwi Joon. "An Kyon and A Dream Visit to the Peach Blossom Land." Oriental Art 26, no. 1 (1980.

    [3] Burglind Jungmann, "Sin Sukju’s Record on the Painting Collection of Prince Anpyeong and Early Joseon Antiquarianism," Archives of Asian Art 61, no. 1 (2011): 115.

    [4] The term is also transcribed as chin'gyong sansu.

    [5] Yi Song-mi, “Artistic Tradition and the Depiction of Reality: True-View Landscape Painting of the Choson Dynasty” in Arts of Korea, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, 344-347.

    [6] Yi Song-mi, 346.

    [7] In Korean, this album is entitled Danwon pungsokdo cheop; it is kept at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

    [8], accessed 9/12/21.


    [10] Portal, Jane, Korea: Art and Archaeology, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000, 126.

    [11] Portraiture of scholar officials – by definition -- excludes women as a subject matter because all scholar officials were men. Furthermore, there were very limited portraits of women because Neo-Confucianism enforced strict separation between men and women and therefore it was forbidden for an artist (almost always male) to paint a woman. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism were injurious to the status of women in Joseon period.

    [12] Everyday attires of Joseon scholar-officials came in two colors. Light pink was for the high-ranking official and light blue was for the lower-ranking official.

    [13] The insignia of crane denotes civil service while that of leopard denotes military service. Two cranes represent Rank 1-3 official (high ranking), one crane represent Rank 4-9 (low ranking).

    [14] Korena, Creating Masterful Paintings from Brush and Ink, Spring, 2007, 21(1). Retrieved from 13 November 2018.

    [15] Retrieved from 13 November 2018