Creators of a Unique "Genre" of Korean Painting, Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok

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Kim Hong-do (1745-?) and Sin Yun-bok (1758-?) were influential painters of the late 18th century who are remembered not only for their artistic mastery, but also for having been pioneers in the use of native Korean scenes as the subjects of their works. Both artists, though skilled in all kinds of painting, are best known for their genre paintings (pungsokhwa) which give insight into the everyday lives of Joseon people.

Kim and Sin were both painters of the royal court. Before entering the Royal Painting Office (Dohwaseo), Kim was the disciple of a renowned artist-official Gang Se-hwang from a young age, while Sin came from a family of royal painters. Both Sin’s father and Kim had painted the portrait of King Yeongjo multiple times, while Kim also painted a portrait of King Jeongjo when Jeongjo was a boy. Jeongjo was particularly fond of Kim, is known to have had all matters relating to royal painting overseen by him. Beginning in the late 1780s, Kim began travelling around the Korean peninsula’s east coast, painting famous Korean sites – most notably Geumgangsan Mountain, of which he is said to have painted 40 to 50 paintings. Sin was also skilled in landscapes, having been influenced by Kim who was 13 years his senior.

Though skilled in all kinds of painting, Kim and Sin are remembered most for their genre paintings, which faithfully depicted scenes of everyday life of the time. Not found in other countries, genre paintings evoke uniquely Korean aesthetics and subjects. Though Kim and Sin both depicted everyday life, their paintings’ subjects differed in nature. Kim portrayed traditional games, marriage customs, outdoor recreation, craft making, farming, gentlemen’s gatherings, and more in his works, while Sin usually depicted beautiful women of lower classes, romantic moments between lovers, and spring outings. The realistic and detailed depictions in their genre paintings allow the works to serve as historical records of the customs and attire of the time.

As the two artists’ subjects differed, so did their technique and composition. Whereas Kim used clear, dynamic lines and neutral colors, Sin used delicate lines and bright colors. The composition of Kim’s genre paintings usually omitted backgrounds to focus on the main figures, while Sin’s usually filled the canvas with the setting. These differences lead to Kim’s paintings having an active and humorous tone, while Sin’s works were erotic and mysterious.

Little is known about the deaths of either Kim or Sin. The careers of both men suffered after the death of Jeongjo, who was a major patron, in 1800. Kim is believed to have fallen into poverty and died a few years later. The last dated work of Sin is from 1813, and he is therefore believed to have died sometime thereafter. Today, individual paintings and albums of their works have been designated as national treasures by the Cultural Heritage Administration and are held at the National Museum of Korea and the Gansong Art Museum.

[The fashion included the phases of the Joseon in a sketchbook, Artist Kim Hong-do (K-HERITAGE)]

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  • Korean Foundation. 2010. Traditional Painting: Window on the Korean Mind. Seoul Selection.