Portrait paintings are prevalent in Korea, especially during the Joseon period (1392-1897). Kings, sadaebu intellectuals, loyal vassals, elders and ancestors, monks, and even notable women were portrayed often with representative belongings to characterize the depicted. The Joseon society treated such portraits as persons incarnate; works enshrined in sacred places such as ancestral shrines and temple halls to worship, pay respect, or reminisce.
In painting the portraits, a strong emphasis was given to the depiction of faces, particularly to eyes. The facial features were considered critical not only for the physical resemblances of the subjects but also for expressing their immaterial inner qualities, such as sincerity, intelligence, elegance, etc. First defined by Gu Kaizhi (345-406) of China, this concept of jeon-shin-sa-jo (mental resemblance conveyed through pictorial realism) was the ruling canon to the portrait painters of Joseon. To achieve mental realism, all the physical features of the subjects, such as pockmarks from a childhood illness, age spots and wrinkles, and wisps of hairs and beards, are painstakingly laid out.
A portrait by Chae Yongshin (1848-1941) is an excellent example of the “mental resemblance conveyed through pictorial realism.” Here, a man is seated in a chair covered with a tiger hide—a coveted luxury item among the yangban literati class. He wears a formal silk robe tied with a chest belt holding an embroidered rank badge in the center. An identity tag, to indicate his official status, as a civil 2nd rank junior governor, protrudes from the hem of the robe. A fan—an essential accessory of the literati class—is in his hands. A faint smile on his lips hints at nervousness in the painters’ presence, though his gaze is direct.
The more than a century-old realism employed in this portrait is nothing but the hyperrealism of the 1970s. Every strand of the hair, eyebrows, and beard are painted in fine brushes and subtle gradation entirely by hand. Furthermore, the fur of the tiger skin and the weaving of the hwa-mun-seok (Korea’s woven sedge mat) are virtually indistinguishable from the real silk border surrounding the portrait. Most amazingly, even the three-dimensional details of the gilded belt, stone plaque, and embroidered rank badge are masterfully rendered.
Chae created the eojin (king portrait) of King Gojong (r. 1864-1897). The artist copied many other paintings of historical kings and patriotic luminaries and produced numerous other works before his death. Based on his pseudonym, “Seokgang” in the inscription to the verso, this portrait was created post-1901, the date of his portrait of King Gojong, who bestowed him with the nickname. Unfortunately, little information on the sitter is revealed in the inscription, making this portrait all the more tantalizing and enchanting to both art collectors and researchers.
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