Book: Great Korean Portraits

For anyone interested in portraits in the Joseon period, I think this book Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun Mie is a must. It has been translated from the Korean version and covers 50 portraits of historical or artistic importance. It’s not cheap at 50,000 won, but it gives us lots of interesting information and plenty of illustrations in an area that doesn’t have much available in English. The author has  studied portraits for over 30 years and is currently a professor at the college of art at Sungkyunkwan University. The book is translated by Lee Kyong-hee editor of Korea Focus news magazine. Published by Dolbegae, 2010. 

Portraits were important in Confucian society and lots of memorial shrines and portrait halls were built where people could perform ancestral rites and pay their respects to ancestors or great historical figures. The portraits were seen as more than mere paintings and it was believed that the portrait contained the soul of the person depicted. So the style of the time was for extremely detail-oriented realism and the author Cho Sun Mie,  explained how this came about in an interview with the koreanherald:

Joseon was greatly influenced by Chinese Confucian philosopher Cheng Yi (1033-1107). And one of his statements said, “If even one hair is not correctly rendered, then the image portrayed would be that of another person.” Cheng in fact said this to discourage painters from painting portraits, as he thought it wasn’t humble enough ― by his strict Confucian standards ― to have portraits during the ancestral rituals. Not knowing Cheng’s initial intention, painters of Joseon took the statement literally and applied to their works of art.



The book is divided into 6 Chapters which cover portraits of kings, literati, meritorious subjects, senior officials, women, and monks. The introduction gives an overview of the different types of portraits and the process of how the portraits were actually painted and mounted.

It focuses on commissioned portraits painted by renowned court painters of the day, not portraits of your average person in the street. And so I think we can learn a lot about the values of the Joseon period by looking at the groups of people NOT depicted here as well as those who are depicted! (You’ll see this later.)  Anyway, as this collection covers important figures in history, each portrait comes with a mini biography and points of interest. There’s a range of portraits painted throughout the Joseon period as well as a few from the previous Goryeo Dynasty and the author explains how painting styles, techniques, and fashions changed over the years sometimes due to outside influences, such as China.

Often the portraits are anonymous as a team of court painters were usually commissioned to produce the portraits. But master portraitists included  Kim Myeong-guk (1600-1663) Yi Jing (1581-?) Yi Jeong (1578-1607) Yi Sin-heum (1570-1632) Jin Jae-hae (1691-1769) Jang Deuk-man (1684-1764)  and Kim Du-ryang (1696-1763)

Here is a summary and some points of interest from each chapter:

Chapter 1 Portraits of Kings

portrait of King Taejo


The first chapter on kings is short because (as I wrote about in this post on searching for portraits of King Sukjong) so many portraits were lost due to fires and wars throughout Korean history. Only the original portraits of four kings remain – King Taejo (the first king and grandfather of King Sejong), King Yeongjo (King Sukjong and Dong Yi’s son), King Cheoljong (only half of this is in one piece), and King Gojong. And this is even though several portraits were made of each king and enshrined in royal portrait halls. People also went to great lengths to protect the portraits – there were special cases where the portraits could be rolled up and stored in and hidden away in the mountains when there was trouble. See my post on Jeonju for a look at one of King Taejo’s portrait pavilions.

Chapter 2 Portraits of the Literati

The second chapter on portraits of the Literati is the longest covering 28 noblemen. Here we can see a selection of Neo-Confucian scholars, scholar-officials and military officials employed in government offices, and scholar-patriots who fought against colonisation by the Japanese in the late Joseon period. (It goes without saying that all officials were men.)

An-hyang (1243-1306)

And in most of the portraits, the subject is sitting stoically in official dress. Scholars may be seen sitting on the floor behind low writing desks with writing tools on it. Military and scholar officials wear their official robes (a crane on the front for a scholar official and a tiger on the front for a military official) Their hands are crossed and covered by the long sleeves of the robes. The position they sit in may be full-frontal or slightly to one side depending on the fashion at the time.

The chapter begins with An Hyang (1243-1306), the forefather of Korean Neo-Confucianism. (The shrine dedicated to him is in the grounds of Sungkyunkwan and is regularly mentioned in the sageuk drama Deep Rooted Tree, SBS 2011). His hair and headgear are in the Mongol fashion as at the time Goryeo was under the control of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. (Read more about the relationship between Korea and China through history here.)

Yun Se-seo (1658-1715)

The self-portrait of Yun Su-Seo (1668-1715) (the cover picture of the book) is recognised as ‘one of the three towering figures of Joseon in painting, along with Jeong Seon (1676-1759) and Sim Sa-jeong (1707-1769).’

Self-portraits were rare in the Joseon period. The author suggests this is because the painter would need enough self-esteem to think himself worthy of a self-portrait, and then he would need the skills to be able to carry it out – really good skills too to reproduce a realistic likeness required during the Joseon period. And the painter would most likely have to be a member of the higher classes to think himself worthy of keeping a self-portrait. Painters from the lower classes were usually not so keen to paint themselves.

The mini biography tells us that Yun Su-Seo lived during King Sukjong’s reign. But due to factional struggles at court, he didn’t become an official but moved to his hometown in Jeolla where he focused on his interests which included calligraphy and painting. He suffered tragedies in his life as family members and wife died while he was young. Perhaps we can see this in his face. The portrait is full-frontal and intense as he stares out at us. Each hair of his beard painted meticulously. He stayed with the style trend which meant giving an objective representation of himself. Realism – warts and all.


Chapter 3 Portraits of Meritorious Subjects

Meritorious subjects were scholars and officials in the literati class who received special awards for their service to the crown. There were strict rules about how the subject was seated in the portrait and what he should wear ( his official robes of course showing his rank). The portraits were commissioned by royal order so they were painted by the most talented painters. And the Office of Loyalty and Rewards was in charge of dealing with issues relating to meritorious subject and they produced two copies of the portrait – one to be kept at the palace and the other for the subject’s family. The practice of awarding meritorious subjects stopped in 1728. 7 portraits are included in this chapter. For me, an interesting question that arose in this chapter concerns the robes of officials:

When did chest emblems that show rank first appear in Joseon? 

If you’ve watched any sageuk dramas set in the royal court, you’ll know that the officials usually have a large embroidered emblem on the chest of their robes. Military officials had tigers on their chest emblems, scholar officials had cranes on theirs, and the King had a dragon.

Yi Cheon-u (1354-1417) and  Shin Suk-ju (1417-1475) 

But the portrait of Yi Cheon-u (1354-1417) (above left) nephew of the first king of Joseon, King Taejo, is interesting because his robes are plain – even though he was awarded for his part in helping his uncle take power from Goryeo: He was given various titles until finally becoming honorary advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office (uigeumbu). According to the book, the chest emblem showing rank had not been introduced yet, so that’s why he just wears plain white robes with a gold belt. (he does wear a bit of colour as the under-robes are peeking out through slits of the outer robe.)

Apparently, the emblem (hyungbae) was introduced in 1454 the second year of King Danjong. And we can see an early example of this in the portrait of the scholar Shin Suk-ju (1417-1475) (above right) The emblem is a silver brocade square with two pheasants, flowers and clouds.

So this means that the robes were plain during King Sejong’s reign (r.1418-1450). I’ve just checked and sure enough the costumes of the officials in the drama Deep Rooted Tree (set during the reign of King Sejong) are plain (below left). (I only noticed this after reading about it here!) Compare their robes to the ones worn by officials in the drama Dong Yi (below right) as they show the officials wearing the emblem of rank on their chest.

cf the plain robes of the officials in Deep Rooted Tree (SBS 2011) set during the reign of King Sejong (r. 1418 – 1450) (left) and the robes of officials with emblems on their chests in Dong Yi (MBC 2010) set during King Sukjong’s reign (r. 1674-1720) (right)

According to the mini bio Shin Suk-ju worked in the jipyenjeon on hangul and was sent to study phonemics in Ming. But he was also controversial as he supported the coup of Prince Suyong against the young King Danjong. After this he was cited as a meritorious subject by the new King Sejo.  He reached the highest administrative rank – First State Councilor (yeonguijeong). Read more about the coup of Prince Suyong here.

Chapter 4 Portraits of Senior Officials

Panel screen picture of Banquet for Senior Officials late 17th century (anon)

In this chapter we can see a range of official portraits of the senior and noble officials over the age of 60 or 70 who were allowed to enter the special  Hall of Senior Officials. The portraits also show some of the gifts they received from the king to mark the occasion such as a walking stick with a pigeon shaped handle. Large banquets and events were held to celebrate officials entering the Hall and we can see an example of a painting of this here too (above).

The Hall of Senior Officials was created at the beginning of the Joseon period under King Taejo’s reign and the kings also entered the Hall when they turned 60. Then during King Sukjong’s reign portraits were made of the senior officials too and kept in the Hall. The banquet scenes don’t depict the kings but we can get a sense of the events themselves from these paintings.

Chapter 5 Portraits of Women

gyewolhyang (? - 1592)

As I mentioned, this book is also interesting as we can see who was NOT represented in Joseon portraits. And so we come to the shortest chapter in the book – 12 pages out of 352. Portraits of women were rare and became extinct towards the middle of the period. It seems that one of the reasons was that the painters were men and since there were strict rules about men and women being together, this created difficulties in how to carry out the painting process.  After the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century Confucian ideology became more influential. Gender segregation was more common so even queens and noblewomen couldn’t be painted: King Sukjong wanted to commission a portrait of his second queen (Inhyeon) but there was uproar at the thought of men (there were usually more than one painter) looking at her for so long! So he gave up. No portraits of queens have survived from the Goryeo period either.

There are just three women presented here: the wife of a high ranking official and two gisaengs who were honoured for their loyalty and bravery

Gyewolhyang (?-1592) (above) was a famous gisaeng and lover of Kim Gyeong-Seo (1564-1624) a military commander. She helped to assassinate a Japanese commander. Kim Gyeong-seo then killed her as they couldn’t both escape! Her portrait was painted in 1815 so that it could be hung and be worshipped in memorial rites. Another gisaeng, Unnangja (Choe Yeon-hong) (1785-1846) was recognised for her bravery and loyalty to Jeong Ji the county magistrate when the offices were attacked by rebels. She was a magistrate’s concubine but Cho writes that in the portrait she’s holding a baby and has an elegant and serene expression to show her as a faithful woman as well as to downplay her femininity and emphasise her bravery.

Interestingly, even though the philosophy behind Joseon portrait paintings was that the subject should be presented objectively warts and all, the portraits of the gisaengs are not considered to be true replicas  – rather they present an idealised version of the subjects.

The other example of female portraits is of Lady Yi, the wife of Ha Yeon (1376-1453), the first state councillor in early Joseon. But her portrait was not painted to stand alone but was designed to hang next to her husband’s. So she is facing slightly to her right (her husband is facing slightly to his left in his portrait) so they are looking towards each other. Portraits of couples discontinued when stricter Confucian morals took hold in the mid-Joseon period.

Portraits of Children

There are no records of children in Joseon portraits. Again due to Confucian ideology, children were supposed to respect their parents and look after them. They couldn’t do this if they died before them (the portraits were used during ancestral rites after the subject’s death) so the children were seen as not fulfilling their duty of filial piety! (That’s harsh)

Chapter 6 Portraits of Eminent Buddhist Monks

Great Master Hwadam (late 17th century, anon)

There are 4 monks who reached high ranks in the monk hierarchy represented in this chapter. (So even the monks had a hierarchy.) Once they passed the higher state examination they had 6 ranks from bottom to top:

Great Virtue (daedeok)
Great Master (daesa)
Double Great Master (jung daesa)
Triple Great Master (samjung daesa)
Zen Master (seonsa)
Great Zen Master (dae seonsa)

Apparently, ancient original paintings of monks are rare as the paintings were exposed to harsh environments – incense burning and crowds of worshipers – so they were often reproduced. Even though Buddhism was repressed during the Joseon period in favour of Confucianism there were still high profile monks.

I think this book of portraits becomes more meaningful when we know more about the history of Joseon and WHO the people are in the portraits. I have skimmed through the book and mentioned a few  that I found interesting because of who they are or what their portrait tells us about the fashions of the time. As always my interest in Joseon history is related to sageuk drama. And this book is also useful as it gives information on the Korean names of the various government offices that appear so often in sageuk dramas set in the royal court. And at the back there is a handy glossary (including Chinese characters) and a Timeline of Great Korean Portraits. So all in all, I think this makes a great reference book to keep nearby – I see myself referring to this again and again when I watch my next sageuks to see if anyone else from the book makes an appearance in the drama! It’s also nice just to flick through and look at the pictures!

I bought this book at the National Museum when I went to see the exhibition on Joseon portraits. It’s not on Amazon and might be tricky to get hold of although I did see that it’s available here at the SeoulSelection online bookshop.  (I sometimes pop into the Seoul Selection book shop but I have not shopped at their online store though.)


2 thoughts on “Book: Great Korean Portraits

  • August 12, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Wow.. Super interesting… I am very surprised that King Sukjong wanted to have a portrait of Inhyeon do you know if this happen before or after Jang hui bin??…I read that one of the requirement to be Queen was that they had to be very beautiful and some of them gain over others because their beauty was greatest (as deposed queen Yun) There is a rumour that there is a portrait of Choi suk bin in her shrine.. Do you know if this can be obtained?? Thank you so much for sharing!

    • August 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Interesting questions!

      I checked in the Great Korean Portraits book and it tells us that in the annals of King Sukjong (Sukjong Sillok) there is an entry in the 8th month of the 21st year of his reign where the king ordered the literati painter Kim Jin-gyu (1658-1716) to paint a portrait of his second queen, Queen Inhyeon to capture all her virtuous deeds.

      King Sukjong reigned from 1674-1720, so that means the 21st year of his reign was 1695. This was right after he brought Queen Inhyeon back to the palace (after having her exiled) and demoted Jang Hee Bin from the position of Queen back to a Hee Bin concubine! So he must have been feeling a bit guilty for treating her so badly 😕

      Now about the portrait of Suk Bin. I don’t think concubines had their portraits taken at all. (But I could be wrong) It was hard enough for the queens to have their portraits taken! It says in the book that in the early Joseon period portraits of queens were painted and placed with those of the kings in the palace shrine. This was a custom continued from the previous Goryeo period. But all these portraits were burned during the 16th century Japanese invasions and no portraits of Joseon queens survived.

      And there are no records of any production of a queen’s portrait after that Imjin war (1592-98). And no records of a queen’s portrait being housed even at the Royal Portrait Hall.

      So that’s all I know. I suppose as Neo-Confucian ideology became stronger during the Joseon period, it became less and less likely for the ladies to get a look in. 😕

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