Portraits of Gisaengs

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

Portrait of a Beauty

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.


7 thoughts on “Portraits of Gisaengs

  • August 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    It’s very interesting to read this. Thank you

    • August 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Thank you!

  • August 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Nice to find your blog. I think we have similar taste of korean drama.
    My first attached drama was all about eve, and the latest was new tale of gisaeng.
    I’m waiting a new drama with similar quality of gisaeng.
    How’s about scent of a woman by kim sun ah ?

  • August 16, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Thanks! Yes, All about Eve was one of the first dramas I watched and I still love it. I’m also wondering what to watch after I finish New Tales of Gisaeng.
    I haven’t seen Scent of a Woman, but I liked Kim Sun-ah in My Name is Kim Sam-soon. So I’ll have to check this drama out!
    Choi Ji Woo is in a new drama starting soon, Can’t Live with Losing, with Yoon Sang Hyun (he was in Secret Garden) so I’m thinking about this one..

  • September 20, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Hello everybody!

    I need this book :)

    Where I can buy it? But I am hungarian because of I don’t know in my land buy it :O

  • July 13, 2012 at 2:29 am

    the korean historical dramas that i’ve seen are usually about royalty (even if the royals grew up without knowing their status), women who marry royals or gisaengs. Very few leading roles for ordinary people. That’s what makes Sungkyunkwan Scandal special- the leads are child of merchant, children on ministers and child of dead scholar who grow up poor, and Jewel in the Place – palace maids and other workers. that’s not a complaint, just saying

  • July 25, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Wonderful background on some of these drama’s.
    The paintings are stunningly beautiful.I loved Painter of the wind.Very artfully done.
    I started watching KDrama’s last November and have not watched tv since!
    So much rich history! So much culture ,but also excellent acting, by very smart people!

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