Kim Hong-do (1745-1806), who is also known by his pen name Danwon, was a virtuoso painter of the late Joseon Dynasty period, from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. At that time, Korea enjoyed notable political and social stability as well as economic prosperity. Its longstanding agricultural society started to enjoy the fruits of international trade, including brisk exchanges with the Qing Dynasty of China and the Edo Bakufu of Japan. In addition, the dynasty was ruled by culturally refined monarchs, such as King Jeongjo and King Yeongjo, who actively patronized a number of talented artists such as Jeong Seon, Kang Se-hwang, Sim Sa-jeong, Sin Yun-bok, Jo Yeong-seok and Yi In-sang, along with Kim Hong-do, the foremost painter of his time.
Depictions of Everyday Life
King Jeongjo, a patron of the fine arts, was especially fond of Kim Hong-do’s works. Kim painted Jeongjo’s portrait on several occasions, and was also awarded a variety of commissions by the king and court retainers. In 1776, when King Jeongjo came to the throne, other parts of the world were undergoing historical change. This included the newly established United States that declared its independence from English rule that same year, while Europe would soon find itself smoldering from the destruction wrought by the French Revolution in 1789. In Asia, however, Korea, China, and Japan enjoyed a period of social stability and economic affluence thanks to the effective governance of the Joseon Dynasty, Qing Dynasty, and Edo Bakufu, respectively.
Kim Hong-do was a truly consummate artist with such diverse talent that he excelled in all categories of Asian painting. Regardless of the subject matter, whether a landscape scene, human figure, or flowers with birds, his brush strokes were always masterful. In particular, his most endearing works featured people from all segments of Joseon society as they went about their everyday lives. In fact, genre painting became a popular artistic trend of 18th-century Joseon. In contrast to Asian painting in general, which is often characterized by its idealistic or philosophical expression, the adoption of realism in genre painting distinguished it as a unique art form. As compared to the usual works of abstraction, which would often cause people to pause in bewilderment, his animated depictions of everyday scenes were received with widespread enthusiasm. Moreover, no other genre painters could infuse their works with the enduring charm of Kim Hong-do.
Around that time, the artistic styles of Classicism and Romanticism held sway over the Western art world. The Western artists, whose lives closely overlapped with that of Kim Hong-do, included Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) of France, and Francisco Goya (1746-1828) of Spain. David was a painter of the Neo-classical style and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. His The Death of Marat painting, a masterpiece of Western genre painting, is said to be a silent but powerful expression of the tragic reality of his times. Spanish court painter Goya’s works, in the Romantic style, likewise revealed the tumultuous situation of contemporary Spain.
Unlike these Western-style genre paintings, Kim Hong-do’s works are placid and genial. Reflecting the affluent times of the late Joseon Dynasty, his works portray a wide range of people in a state of contentment or leisurely comfort, rather than scenes of brutal violence or chaotic turmoil. Although he was often commissioned to depict the festive scenes of various court celebrations, Kim preferred to capture the mundane affairs of common people. As such, the Album of Genre Paintings offers an insightful glimpse into the lifestyle and essence of Joseon’s common class. Nowadays, Korean viewers might smile bemusedly at the quaint goings-on of Joseon society, some 200 years ago, but they may also be surprised with the extent to which these bygone influences have left an imprint on our modern-day life.
Cornerstone of Society: Education
The Village School or seodang is a delightful work that illustrates the Joseon education system, along with confirming the deep roots of Korea’s zeal for education. In the past, and today as well, parents are known to make such extreme sacrifices for the education of their children, with little regard for their own well-being. And in fact, education was essential for upward social mobility and admission into mainstream society, based on the ethical standards of the times. The most basic educational institution of the Joseon Dynasty, the kind of school depicted in the painting, could be found in practically every agricultural village or community in the countryside.
The painting depicts an elderly teacher and a class of nine students. From behind his low desk, the teacher faces his students, who are sitting on the floor in two rows. A young student in the middle is about to be disciplined. His book is laid open on the floor, behind him, and there is a whip beside the teacher’s desk. While wiping away tears with the back of his hand, the boy loosens the ties around his trouser cuffs to reveal his calves. The young boy, who appears to be seven or eight years of age, is filled with the dread of being whipped on his calves by the teacher. The boy’s classmates make up two factions. A group to the left seems to be sympathetic toward the boy’s predicament. One of them, his hand covering his mouth, appears to be whispering the answer to his beleaguered classmate, while another one signals for him to look at his book. The group on the opposite side, sitting farther away, looks on with relative indifference, or even with slight amusement at his plight.
A student closest to the teacher, to his left, wears a large-brimmed hat, which suggests that he is an older student. As captured in this scene, in a rural schoolhouse of this period, students of various ages studied together and were taught based on their individual level of learning. At least for primary education, this was a practical means to provide education to as many children as possible in rural areas. Overall, this painting sheds light on the long history of Korea’s respect for education.
Koreans at Play
Korean-style wrestling, or ssireum, is noticeably different from Western forms of the sport. It is also separate from taekwondo, Korea’s traditional form of martial arts, in that it is not about kicking and striking, but a contest of strength and technique. Two contestants grapple in an effort to throw their opponent to the ground. A winner is declared if any part of his opponent’s body, other than the feet, touches the ground. In ssireum, one of the wrestlers, with a slight advantage, appears ready to throw his opponent to the ground. The aggressor’s face is taut with determination, while his opponent struggles desperately to maintain his balance. In an instant, one or the other could be on the ground. Their footwear is placed neatly on the side.
Notable details reveal various aspects about the spectators. Two men at the lower right side stare intently at the wrestlers, their mouths agape. Individuals in the crowd show varied interest in the match—some with hats on their heads and others with their hats removed, along with one fan who leans forward on his hands in anticipation of the outcome, and another that covers his lower face with a fan. It is presumed that a man sitting in the front, with his arms around his legs, is the contestant in an upcoming match, since he has removed his hat and footwear. The one person in the crowd who is not paying any attention to the match is a taffy vendor, standing to the left with a wooden tray suspended from his neck. He seems to have few buyers except for one young boy shown at the bottom edge.
The works of the Album of Genre Paintings are noteworthy for their focus on the subject people and their activities, without including background details. This approach helps to highlight the central theme, especially when working with a small-size surface. However, a careful inspection of the composition of each painting reveals just how adeptly and efficiently the artist has made use of the limited space. In the works, the people and activities are arranged so that the viewer can feel like he is part of the particular scene. And this is achieved in a natural, subtle manner.
In particular, the brush strokes are truly masterful. Basic outlines and forms were applied directly to the paper without any preliminary sketching. In spite of this seemingly extemporaneous process, the final painting exhibits a carefully planned composition. For Kim Hong-do, who created the Album of Genre Paintings while in his late 30s, his extraordinary artistry enabled him to produce this collection of genre masterpieces with such an unassuming and effortless style.