I just remembered that last year I found some paintings of real gisaengs done by the famous Joseon painter Shin Yun-bok. I was watching the drama Dong Yi at the time, and I started to search for portraits of King Sukjong and other Kings of the Joseon period. It was quite sad because I discovered that not so many paintings have survived over the years. There weren’t many portraits of women done at the time anyway; most portraits were of royalty and yangban. But the mysterious Shin Yun-bok often depicted women in his work and ordinary Joseon life – including gisaengs.
New Tales of Gisaeng, 2011, SBS
Although Shin Yun-bok was one of the most famous painters of the Joseon period, he couldn’t be a court painter – some sources (Joongang Daily) say this is because his father worked in the dohwaseo ( the Art Department of the Royal Court) and fathers and sons weren’t allowed to work there at the same time, Wiki says he got thrown out of the court for painting erotic pictures. (left – portrait of a Beauty by Shin Yun-bok (1758 – ?) Anyway, he certainly got into trouble for his style of painting in the strict Confucian society. He painted ordinary life and he often painted women – even though this was unusual in Confucian society. Apparently only about 100 of his paintings still survive. (The 2008 SBS drama The Painter of the Wind was based on a novel about his fictionalised life as not much is known about his real life. Interestingly in the novel and in the drama, the painter is depicted as a woman. I’m still trying to make time to watch this drama..)
In this painting we can see a group of ladies bathing on Dano Day (a festival to celebrate the end of the sowing season in the 5th month of the Lunar calendar.)“Scenery on Dano day” (단오풍정 端午風情) by Shin Yun-bok. Picture source: Wiki
I have a book on the paintings of Shin Yun-bok and in the description of the painting Scenery on Dano Day (above) it says that although the ladies in the painting are well-dressed, it’s unlikely that they are yangban (upper class) ladies. That’s because yangban ladies would not be able to casually undress like this outdoors! (Notice the two novice monks sneaking a look, top left!) So the only ladies that could dress well but be relaxed in this way were gisaengs. But I think the ladies are very sensitively portrayed in the painting. And I love the splash of red made by the skirt of the lady on the swing.