Joseon's Most Revered Female Artist, Sin Saimdang

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Sin Saimdang (1504-1551) is the most well-known female artist of the Joseon period (1392-1910). She was skilled in poetry, painting, and calligraphy, and many of her works are extant today. Born as the eldest daughter of a family which had no sons and demonstrating inborn artistic and academic talent from a young age, she was educated by her family as if she were male, which was uncommon for the time.

With her father busy studying in Hanyang (part of present-day Seoul), she was raised primarily by her mother and maternal grandparents in Gangneung. From a young age, she showed a natural talent not only in embroidery and sewing, but also painting. At the age of seven, she surprised those around her by having taken it upon herself to copy the painting of a famous artist. Acknowledging her precocious artistic talent, her maternal grandfather encouraged her studies and taught her like a grandson. Due to her excellent memory, she quickly become proficient in Classical Chinese texts and became well versed in knowledge of Confucianism, history, and ancient literature. After her father returned to Gangneung in 1519, he also directly taught Sin Saimdang, along with his other daughters and nieces.

In 1522, Sin Saimdang married Yi Won-su, a man of moderate social standing who her father had chosen in the hope that his daughter would be allowed to continue her artistic pursuits. Just a few months after the wedding, Sin’s father died, so she remained at her family’s home to complete the required mourning period. She then joined her husband and moved various times to Hanyang, Paju, and Pyeongchang. However, she often spent periods of time with her widowed mother in Gangneung. Together with Yi, she had five sons and three daughters.

During her life, she was admired by many for her knowledge of literature and history and for her works of art. Her delicate and realistic paintings include depictions of insects, grapes, flowers and birds, plum blossoms, orchids, landscapes, and fish. She educated her children in painting, emphasizing that “talent alone will not a good painting make; Rather one must first calm oneself, then carefully observe the object to be painted. If the object’s true essence is not understood with certainty, the painting will lack vitality.” Her poems were also revered and include themes of filial devotion and sorrow about leaving her mother.

Sin Saimdang died of a sudden illness in 1551 at the age of 46. One of her sons, Yi I, went on to become one of the two most revered Confucian scholars of the Joseon period (along with Yi Hwang), while her son Yi U and daughter Yi Maechang also became successful artists. Both Sin and Yi I are depicted on Korean banknotes – 50,000 KRW and 5,000 KRW, respectively. Her maternal home in Gangneung, named Okjuheon, has been preserved until this day.

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