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Joseon paintings under spotlight

“Yeonsodapcheong” (Outing of the Youth) by Shin Yun-bok at Gansong Museum of Art (Gansong Museum of Art)
“Yeonsodapcheong” (Outing of the Youth) by Shin Yun-bok at Gansong Museum of Art (Gansong Museum of Art)

Leeum, Gansong museums showcase collections of court  and genre paintings from Joseon

The Joseon Dynasty was the period when Korean painting reached its zenith, both in terms of quantity and quality. It showed a great development in techniques and diversification of genres.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Hannam-dong and Gansong Art Museum in Seongbuk-dong, both representative private museums in Seoul, are highlighting Joseon paintings. It is a rare chance to see important works from the period, including otherwise hard-to-see national treasures.

Court painters

In celebration of its seventh anniversary, Leeum brought together 110 paintings by “hwawon,” or court painters of the Joseon Dynasty. It showcases works by master painters like Kim Hong-do, Jang Seung-eop, Shin Yun-bok and Kim Deuk-sin who are well-known among the Korean public, mirroring their immense influence.

Affiliated with the Bureau of Painting at the time, the court painters produced paintings of royal processions, royal portraits and ornamental paintings for the palace and illustrations for royal documents. Receiving commissions from other patrons, however, they created private portraits and landscape paintings as well.

“Hwawon played an active part in Joseon Dynasty art field, as can be guessed from how scholars say that half of the period’s paintings are by Kim Hong-do. They were creators of new genres and leaders of artistic trends,” said Cho Ji-yun, curator at Leeum.

Following the long wall installed at the entrance of the museum to recreate the palace mood, visitors will have to choose which section to browse first ― “The Court Painter’s Brush: Forming Royal Authority” or “The Court Painter’s Brush: Painting Joseon.”

The first part unfolds in the museum’s Black Box exhibition space. It shows the results of the artists’ official activities within the palace. Exhibits include “Hwaneohaengryeoldo (Royal Procession Back to Seoul)” by Kim Deuk-sin; “Portrait of O Jae-sun” by Yi Myeong-gi; and the three-meter long and one-meter tall “Donggabanchado (Royal Palanquin Procession)” by an anonymous artist which is shown to the public for the first time. 
“Gunseondo (Immortals)” by Kim Hong-do at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art)
“Gunseondo (Immortals)” by Kim Hong-do at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art)

The artists’ privately commissioned works can be found in the ground floor gallery. Paintings of more various themes compared to the first section are on show, such as Jang Seung-eop’s “Yumyodo (Playing Cats),” Kim Hong-do’s landscape painting “Samgongbulhwando (The Nature Better than the Official Ranks)” and “Gunseondo (Immortals),” which is designated as National Treasure No. 139.

In an effort to attract visitors who are more familiar with provocative contemporary art, Leeum installed high-tech digital devices to aid viewers to take a closer look at the paintings and discover details of the fingernail-sized officials participating in the long processions. Looking through the gadgets, one can discover that each subject has different facial expressions and attitudes ― some dozing off and some daydreaming.

Genre paintings and portraits

While Leeum focuses on court painters, Gansong brings out Joseon Dynasty genre paintings and portraits from its treasure trove for its fall exhibition, one of the two occasions during the year when the private museum is open to the public.

Noting how Joseon paintings began to shake off some Chinese influence and develop its own trends, technique and colors since the development of neo-Confucianism by Joseon scholar Yi I, the museum is exhibiting 100 portrait and genre paintings by 52 artists that show such movement.

Jeong Seon’s “Oechomundap (Fisherman and Woodcutter in Conversation)” featuring a wood cutter carrying an A-frame is a good example. Cho Young-seok depicted the lives of peasant women working in their shabby kitchens in “Chongayeohaeng (Travel to a Rural House),” and Shin Han-pyeong expressed motherly love in “Jamoyuka (Mother Feeding Her Baby).”

A notable point about the show at Gangson is that Shin Yun-bok’s famed painting “Miindo (Portrait of a Beauty)” is being shown to the public for the first time in three years. Including the piece, 16 of Shin’s remarkable paintings, mostly featuring women, are on display.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art’s exhibition runs through Jan. 29. Tickets range from 4,000 won to 7,000 won. For more information, call (02) 2014-6900 or visit

Gansong Art Museum’s exhibition runs through Oct. 30. Admission is free. For more information, call (02) 762-0442.

By Park Min-young (
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Korea Herald daum