What can we learn about Joseon society through the paintings of Shin Yun Bok?

shin yun bok

I have just finished reading the book 조선의 미인을 사랑한 신윤복 (Shin Yun Bok the painter who loved Joseon Beauties) He’s one of the painters portrayed in the drama Painter of the Wind (SBS 2008) but in the drama he is portrayed as a woman ( I plan to watch that drama asap!)

I really like his paintings which are so delicate and fresh and seem so modern. It’s a fascinating book which describes many of the painter’s works in detail revealing things that I never would have noticed just by looking at the work myself. There was lots to learn and all the information about the artist and his work that I’ve written about in this post is information that I read in the book.

He was a renowned painter of the late Joseon period (penname Hye-Won) who focused on painting women – often gisaeng – and making social comments through his paintings by depicting relationships and scenes from everyday life. There aren’t many landscapes of his remaining, but it’s not clear if he just didn’t paint landscapes or if they have simply never been found.

shin han pyeoung

아이를 기르는 어머니 Mother looking after her child by Shin Han Pyong (Shin Yun Bok’s father) 

Nothing much is known about the painter himself. His father worked as a Royal Painter in the Deohwaso Royal Bureau of Painting and some of his paintings are included in this book too – such as the one above where the painter’s family is shown at home. The little boy crying is Shin Yun Bok crying because his sister is getting fed and he is not and they are all hungry. Painters had a low status at the time and so they had little money.

And so because of his low status his birthdate is not known, but he lived in the late 18th century. It’s thought that he was influenced by Kim Hong Do who was also a Royal Painter at around the same time. But it’s said that Shin Yun Bok was thrown out of the Dohwaso but the reason is unknown.


Below are three examples of women portrayed in his paintings. The first is one of his most famous paintings – Portrait of a Beauty. It’s not known if she was a gisaeng or what her relationship was to the painter. But each hair on her head has been delicately and lovingly painted so perhaps he was in love with her? Or perhaps he had been paid a lot of money by a yangban to paint her so delicately?

The second is a scene from a market where a young mother has stopped to talk to an old lady. The young mother has a very short chogori top showing her breasts. (I didn’t notice this at first). Wearing the chogori like this shows off the fact that the lady has a baby. And with her foot raised, it looks as though she is in a hurry to leave and get home to her family! Both ladies are drawn in a sensitive, feminine and attractive manner.

The third picture is a gisaeng smoking a pipe. She’s holding a reed musical instrument too and she seems lonely sitting outside by the pond. While other women her age would be busy with their young families, she sits alone during her time off from work not able to have a normal family life.

shin yun bok

paintings from left: Portrait of a Beauty, Women at Fish Market, Woman at Yeondang


Shin Yun Bok painted portraits and also genre painting. Genre painting (풍속화 pungsokhwa) depicts people in everyday life. In Korea, genre painting really came into its own during the Joseon period and in particular during King Yeongjo’s and then King Jeongjo’s reign in the 18th century.

During the Joseon period, a lot of paintings were done to teach a moral lesson. Portraits of noblemen were supposed to encourage ordinary people to lead better lives. Paintings were also used to record events, so one of the tasks of the artists at the Dohwaso – Royal Bureau of Painting – was to depict as accurately as possible all the events that happened at the palace – banquets, ceremonies, diplomatic trips to neighbouring countries all had to be recorded in painting.

But this kind of genre painting concentrated on the Royal family, upper classes and those of high status and it was sophisticated and formal and meant to showcase well-bred society. So any unbecoming behaviour like men fighting, getting drunk, or flirting with ladies wouldn’t do at all…

So the paintings that portrayed the common people as well as noblemen in social situations, whilst still classed as genre painting, came to be known as 속화 sokhwa. In these paintings we find commoners going about their everyday business, peasants working in the fields, people playing games, taking part in ceremonies with shaman, and socialising.


shin yun bok

In this painting (above) 쌍륙 놀이에 푹 빠지다 An intense game of Ssangryuk (backgammon) (my translation) there are two yangban playing a board game with a couple of gisaeng. This is probably set in the back garden of a wealthy nobleman’s house and the host must be the man sitting on the mats playing the game because he is not wearing a formal gat hat, unlike the man who is standing up.

Several typical characteristics of the artist can be seen in this painting. Firstly, he uses the whole frame to portray the characters in close up, so we can clearly see their expressions. We can see the intensity of the yangban standing up as the gisaeng makes her move. So we can assume that they are on the same team and he is supporting her. The characters in the painting are gisaeng and yangban – favourite subjects of the artist.

The brush strokes are simple and delicate with no unnecessary decoration, patterns, or embellishments on their clothes. The background is also kept to a minimum. In fact, he often uses no background at all to emphasise the character in his paintings.

And finally, as with many other of his works, the painter has written a verse on the right side of the painting followed by his signature pen name – Hye-Won.

But for me the most interesting part of this painting in particular is the use of PERSPECTIVE. Although a lot of art uses the western style approach to perspective – where objects are drawn bigger towards the viewer of the painting – in this painting the perspective is seen from the characters’ point of view. So at first it looks as though the perspective is just wrong. The table is narrow at the viewer’s end of the table! This technique was also used in China. I found this point fascinating since when I learnt about perspective in art class at school, we were NEVER told that there was another way to do it!


shin yun bok

주막에서 술을 기다리며 Waiting for Drinks at a Tavern (my translation) 

As I mentioned, Shin Yun Bok often painted women, particularly gisaeng. And some of the pieces are quite sad. In the above picture a young gisaeng is entertaining guests in a room whilst on the left, an older gisaeng is bringing alcohol to them. She is holding a young child’s hand so she is clearly in charge of looking after him too.

A Gisaeng’s working life was fairly short – they had to ‘retire’ from entertaining when they reached 30 but after that, if they had nowhere to go, they could stay on and work in the kitchens or look after other gisaengs’ children. Gisaengs could not expect to lead ordinary family lives.


Gisaengs were slaves belonging to the government. In many of the paintings there is a government official dressed in red robes who is in charge of looking after the gisaengs. So when there was any trouble at the gisaeng house – fights must have broken out sometimes – the official was there to deal with it. But although they were slaves, they still wore nice clothes and they spent time with yangban who paid to be entertained by them.

So how can we tell if the lady in this painting is a noble lady or a gisaeng? She is being carried in a sedan chair and has a wealthy young man walking alongside her. He is wearing a gat hat and so although he is young (he has no beard) he is a yangban.shin yun bok

기녀를 데리고 단풍을 밟다 taking a gisaeng to look at the autumn leaves

OK so the clue is in the title of the painting. However, without looking at that, there are still clues that reveal her status of gisaeng and not wife. First of all, the chair is not covered. If she were the yangban’s wife, the chair would not be open like this. And secondly, she’s smoking a pipe in public – which noble ladies didn’t normally do!

We can also learn something about the poor blokes carrying the chair down the mountain.   The one at the front is married as he is wearing a hat but the man at the back is still single as his head is bare.


Shin Yun Bok’s paintings also make social comments about society at the time and his work shows sympathy towards women. For example in one painting a young widow dressed in white robes sits isolated within the walls of her parents-in-law’s home. It’s even more poignant since we know that although she is young, social convention means that she won’t be able to marry again. And who knows if she even loved the husband who she married in the first place?

Remarriage for women wasn’t illegal but socially very difficult. It also caused problems for any children too as children in the second marriage would not be able to take the kwago civil servant’s exam for entry into government.

shin yun bok

Lovers under the moon

Women had to protect their honour and so men and women at the time couldn’t spend time alone easily. However, secret meetings between ladies and their sweethearts must have occurred. And here are two secret meetings which are very different in mood.

Throughout the Joseon period there was a curfew time so most women were not used to being out at night. The main character in the painting above is a Yangban noble lady, so she looks demure and uneasy meeting her secret companion. Even the crescent moon looks shy. So perhaps the couple has chosen to meet on a new moon when it’s darker and easier to hide.

On the other hand, in the painting below, the lady meeting her male companion is a gisaeng. She is much more confident and the couple are cuddling in public. And they are meeting under a full moon when the night is at its brightest. It suggests that she doesn’t mind if they get seen. So the sympathetic background expresses the feelings of the characters. The Yangban lady would have a lot to lose if she got caught and her reputation was tainted. shin yun bok

달밤의 밀회 Secret meeting on a moonlit night

The painter also sympathised with women who were powerless against men of a higher status.  Although these men were supposed to be respectable gentlemen they often lusted after other women although it was against the law to covet another man’s wife. But it still happened of course.

Female servants were vulnerable and could do little about the advances of their masters, as in this scene below, since the yangban’s slaves had no rights and were treated more like kept animals.

shin yun bok

젊은 남자가 꽃을 꺾다 A young man picks a flower


So these were some of the points I picked out from the book that I found interesting about the Joseon painter Shin Yun Bok. And after reading about his work, I appreciate it even more. The information that we can pick up though his work about Joseon society is fascinating too. But one thing was for sure – it was a man’s world! Next month I will be reading all about the work of Kim Hong Do another famous painter of the same period. :)








9 thoughts on “What can we learn about Joseon society through the paintings of Shin Yun Bok?

  • February 2, 2016 at 4:55 am

    Hello I am from India. I love your blog. It’s really Amazing and insightful of Korean culture and life. Can you please suggest me some books related to Korean History, Culture, Life, Traditions available in English…
    Please reply
    And Keep Writing:)

    • February 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      Hi. I actually found this quite a hard question to answer. But it’s a great question and I’ll try to write a more detailed post on the subject later.

      It’s hard to find ‘objective’ books on history isn’t it since they depend so much on the writers. And in terms of culture there is a growing number of books on specific subjects such as Joseon paintings, Confucianism, Women’s lives etc. It just depends what area you are interested in.

      I like to read about history with an emphasis on society (not just a list of battle dates etc.) One of the first books I read was The Koreans: Who they are, What they want, Where their future lies, by British journalist Michael Breen. He gives an overview of Korean history as a means of understanding modern Korean society. It was an engaging read although some have criticised it for being biased from a westerner’s point of view and possibly somewhat outdated now. Korea’s place in the Sun: A Modern History, by Bruce Cumings, and Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor have also been popular.

      For a general overview of history A Korean History for International Readers by The Association of Korean History Teachers (2010) is a book that is always on display in the bookshops here in Seoul. It covers all Korean history up until 2010! It has lots of pictures and maps and reveals what school teachers in Korea think us foreigners should know about Korea!

      As I said I realise this is not so helpful so I’ll try to get some more information on useful books and write a post later. Thanks for reading my blog!

      • March 4, 2016 at 5:49 am

        Thank you :)

  • July 5, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Hi there! Thanks for the article. I was wondering what is the author this book and more importantly, if you know if there is a translation into English :). Do you know if there is a book with a similar approach but about Danwon and Owon? Thanks a lot!

    • July 6, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Hi. When I looked on the publishers website, I couldn’t see any books in English. The book is part of a series on Korean and International artists and is published by 아이세움 iseum, who focus on educational books for children. This one is written by 조정육 Jo Jeong Yuk, an art critic. Even though these books are aimed at children (!) I still found the style and content very interesting so I tried to buy another book in the series on Danwon but I was told in the bookshop that the book is out of print. :(

      I was disappointed about that as I am interested in these painters too. I am still looking for books so if I find anything, I’ll let you know. :)

      If you are interested in Joseon Art, another book I like is this book, Great Korean Portraits. But it’s mainly a collection of formal portraits of nobility and not paintings of ordinary people in everyday life. (and it’s quite expensive).

      • July 7, 2016 at 11:35 pm

        Thanks for the information! I’m considering a short trip to Seoul at the end of August and since it will be a short trip one of the main things that I would like to do is see some of Danwon and Hyewon paintings. I understand that Danwon pungsokdo cheop is at the National Museum of Korea while Hyewon pungsokdo is at Gansong Art Museum. Based on your experience, do you think it will be doable to visit both museums and a da ytrip to the country side in 5 days without a car? I will be traveling by myself and planning to stay at Airbnb’s or similar accommodations. Thanks!

        • July 20, 2016 at 6:16 pm

          Yes, I think this is totally doable. Both museums are in Seoul so that’s no problem. Public transportation is very convenient so you can easily get out of the city without a car. And taxis are not expensive. It just depends on where you want to go. Do you have any thoughts about which other area of Korea you would like to visit? We usually get around without a car, but some places are more compact and easier to go sightseeing that others.

          • July 23, 2016 at 3:05 am

            Thanks for your response. If I end up going I will have around 4 complete days, so that’s not enough for me to go to another city. However, besides visiting a Korean Village, one thing that would be very interesting for me is a temple stay. I still have a lot of research to do so, for sure there is a lot more to do. I’m trying to get the latest lonely planet guide to get more ideas, but any suggestions are really appreciated!

          • August 5, 2016 at 2:54 pm

            Hi. I heard that the Gansong museum itself is not open to the public for most of the year. And not open in the summer. But they have a gallery within the Dongdaemun Design Plaza which has an exhibition of Joseon genre painting on at the moment. (I just wanted to check that you have the right location!) The Treasure of Kansong exhibition is on until August 28th on the second floor of the Design Museum at the DDP. Wear comfortable shoes – the DDP is huge. There’s also an exhibition on there by the famous Korean video artist Paik Nam June if that is of any interest. The DDP architecture itself is certainly worth a look at too. Here’s the DDP website

            It’s closed on Mondays according to the website. Open 10am until 7pm. (9pm on Wed / Fridays). In the summer there are some outdoor night markets on Fridays and Saturday evening in the city so if you are visiting at the weekend, the night market outside Dongdaemun Design Plaza might be fun to look around. There’s another one in Yeouido by the river.

            There are two important temples in Seoul and they do templestays. Jogyesa is in the Jongno area north of the river and is the headquarters of the Jogye Buddhist order. South of the river in Gangnam is another big temple – Bongeunsa which is head of Seon Buddhism. I haven’t done a templestay here so I couldn’t say which is better.

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