Document, Depict, Honor, and Express - Traditional Korean Painting

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Korea’s painting tradition dates back to the early Goguryeo period. Goguryeo tomb murals, along with those of Baekje and Silla, give insight into the fashion, society, and spiritual beliefs of ancient Koreans. After Buddhism was introduced to the Three Kingdoms, Buddhist paintings began to be produced. Such paintings flourished during the Unified Silla and Goryeo periods. Goryeo Buddhist paintings were highly regarded in Japan, and Korean artists were commissioned to produce Buddhist scrolls and murals which are extant in Japan today. Elaborate painted designs on Buddhist temple and royal palace buildings, called dancheong, were already in widespread use by the Goryeo dynasty. In the Joseon period, we can see a diversification of genres. Joseon period paintings include landscape paintings, portraits, genre painting, folk painting, documentary painting, and more.

Painting was seen as a way to document nature, events, people, and everyday life, depict stories to educate the people, honor deities and bring good fortune, and express one’s self artistically. By the Joseon dynasty, painting and calligraphy were seen as basic skills in which every royal and literatus must be proficient. However, there were also professional court painters as well as amateur artists among the commoner class. One of the most well-known artist-calligraphers of the Joseon period was Sin Saimdang, a woman of an upper-class family, who painted flowers, animals, and insects.

Portraits, which depict kings, meritorious subjects, literati, and Buddhist monks, were often commissioned by the government. Self-portraits, such as that by Yun Du-seo, were also produced. The Joseon court visually recorded a wide variety of rituals and celebrations in the form of documentary paintings, which were used both as a reference for future events and a commemoration. Examples of these can be found in the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty.

Koreans initially depicted Chinese or artist-imagined landscapes in their landscape paintings, but began in the 18th century to depict real Korean scenic sites in what is called "true-view landscape painting". This trend was led by the prolific painter Jeong Seon. Around the same time, genre paintings such as those by Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok gained popularity. They depicted the everyday life of Koreans and are considered the most uniquely Korean genre of painting. Folk art – produced by mainly unknown, amateur artists – was used by commoners to ward off evil spirits or bring good fortune, particularly for events such as wedding ceremonies and shaman rituals. Common motifs include shaman or Taoist dieties, animals, and plants.

Due to the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598, many paintings from before the 17th century have been lost. However many remain at public and private museums in Korea and abroad.

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

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References

  • Academy of Korean Studies. 2010. Cultural Landscapes of Korea. Academy of Korean Studies Press.
  • Korea Foundation. 2010. Traditional Painting: Window on the Korean Mind Korea Essentials No. 2. Seoul Selection.
  • Lee, Soyoung. 2004. Based on original work by Hwi-Joon Ahn. “Mountain and Water: Korean Landscape Painting, 1400–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mowa/hd_mowa.
  • Lee, Soyoung. 2010. “Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kore/hd_kore.htm