Searching for original portraits of King Sukjong

This post was inspired by a question I was asked about where we can find portraits of King Sukjong and Dong Yi. I began a search, although I was not too hopeful as I had heard that a lot of Joseon royal portraits were damaged during wars and natural disasters over the years. I didn’t find anything on King Sukjong but I did find a portrait of Choi Dong Yi’s son, King Yeongjo, (see further below) along with several other kings. In this post I’ll take a quick look at the process of portrait painting in the Joseon court and the reasons for portrait painting and which royal portraits are still around.

King drinking coffee. OK so I couldn’t find an original portrait of King Sukjong but here’s a more contemporary image. Source: MBC Dong Yi blog

Court Painters

During the Joseon period, the government employed artists to work in the royal court. They were called hwawon and one of their jobs was to paint portraits of kings, crown princes and high ranking officials. They also painted various folding and panel screens of the Five Peaks (obong-byeong) which were displayed behind or at the side of the royal portraits.

The painters worked in the office of painting, dohwaseo, and their rank depended on their talent. Strictly speaking, according to the Joseon Law Code (Gyeongguk daejeon)  artisans could move up to junior rank 6 (jeong 6 pum) but exceptional painters reached higher ranks. They could also receive awards such as cotton, rice, promotions or official posts after completing work successfully for an event. Court painters tended to come from chungmin, the middle class, but they could get upgraded with exceptional work.

Which royal portraits remain?

Unfortunately nearly all the royal portraits were destroyed during invasions, wars and natural disasters such as fires. Only portraits of four kings survive: the first and last Joseon dynasty kings, Taejo (1392-1398) and Gojong (1863-1907), with Yeongjo (1724-76) (Choi Dong Yi’s son) and Cheoljong (1849-63) in between. Another reason why there are so few portraits remaining is that there could only be one portrait of the king in existence at a time, so if one got damaged, a copy had to be made and the original destroyed. Any sketches of the King drawn beforehand had to be destroyed too. King Sukjong had his portrait painted in 1713 (apparently he kept his sketches but where are they?) and a renowned painter Gim Jin-gyu (1658-1716) was one of the painters appointed to paint him.

King Taejo (1392 – 1398) Source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

King Taejo was the founder of the Joseon dynasty so there were more portraits made of him than other kings. Still, there is only one portrait left and that is a copy of the original  painted in 1872 ( 9th year of King Gojong) and is now in Gyeonggijeon Hall in Jeonju. It is a full-length painting with the King seated and looking straight ahead giving him an authoritative look. (In later portraits the kings are usually facing slightly to the side). King Taejo is wearing Ikseongwan, the King’s crown, and Gollyongpo, the King’s robes. There are influences from the Goryeo period in the portrait such as the dragon pattern on the chair and the use of blue robes popular at that time. The patterned carpet feature can be found in the portraits of Kings as late as King Sukjong.

Prince Yeoning later King Yeongjo (1694-1776) source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

King Yeongjo (son of King Sukjong and Choi Dong Yi) was the 21st King and the longest reigning King of the Joseon Dynasty. He ordered artists to paint his portrait 7 times during his reign of 52 years and there were supposedly a total of 12 portraits of him but only two remain, one painting depicts him at 21 years old and the other at 51. This earlier work was partly burnt during the Korean War (1950-1953). The prince is wearing a green round-necked robe with a chest emblem featuring a mythical white unicorn and sash, his hands are folded under long sleeves. He is also wearing a black silk hat and black deerskin boots. The portrait was painted by Jin Jae-hae (?-before 1735) in 1714. Jin Jae-hae was a renowned court artist and the chief portrait painter for King Sukjong in 1713, the 39th year of his reign.

King Yeongjo (1694-1776) source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

The later painting of King Yeongjo was also burnt and so a copy had to be made in the 1900s. This is the copy painted by Jang Gyeongju and Kim Duryang, the most skillful artists of the time. It is a half-length portrait and the king is looking to the right. He is also wearing the Ikseongwan, crown, and red Gollyongpo, King’s robes, with a dragon pattern, and we can see the Gakdae, ornamental band on the chest, is depicted fashionably higher than in the painting of King Taejo.

King Cheoljong (1831- 1863) source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

This portrait of King Cheoljong was painted in 1861 and is now in the National Palace Museum of Korea.  It took a month for prominent artists at the time to paint two portraits of the king – one in silk gauze robe and one in military attire, but only the latter survives.

King Gojong (1852 – 1919) source: New World Encyclopedia

The 26th King of Joseon and first emperor. The portrait was painted by Yi Hancheol and Yu Sook.

Why were portraits painted?

This seems like an obvious question but the portraits were not simply just portraits, they had great symbolic meaning. Royal portraits were painted for worship of royal ancestors and to symbolize the eternal prosperity of the dynasty. They were painted to be hung on alters, portrait shrines or halls for ancestral rites.

As well as royal portraits, the King ordered paintings to be done of merit subjects (men who did good work for their country), and also scholars who reached the age of 60 and 70 as a mark of appreciation for their service. In the early part of the Joseon period, wives of merit subjects were likely to have their portraits painted too, but gradually the number of portraits taken of women began to fall as the male-centred values of a patriarchal Confucian society became stronger. Strict Confucian rules of gender segregation also meant that men and women shouldn’t sit together, so strictly speaking, a female painter would have to paint a female – and there were very few female painters. Perhaps these reasons are why I couldn’t find any pictures of Jang Hui-bin or Queen In heon. There is very little information about Dong Yi in history anyway, so it’s not surprising that I couldn’t find any pictures of her either. There are paintings of gisaeng or every day women still around, but in the upper classes I could only find the occasional yangban lady but no portraits of queens or court ladies.

Royal Portrait painting

There was a lot of protocol to go through before a royal portrait (eojin) was painted and the information on how to go about this was all recorded in detail in books called uigwe의궤 儀軌 (The Royal Protocol of the Joseon Dynasty). There were uigwe on all different aspects of court life and two on royal portrait painting- Royal Portrait Production Uigwe (eoyong dosa dogam uigwe) for original royal portraits, and Royal Portrait Reproduction Uigwe (yeongjeong mosa dogam uigwe) for making copies of damaged portraits.

Painters first had to be chosen and this process could be done through tests. According to records in the uigwe, candidates were put in different rooms so they couldn’t cheat and then they had to copy a portrait of an official. A committee would study the works. 5 painters took part in one royal portrait painting and each was in charge of a different area: the face, body parts, colours.The work was checked constantly during the process by the king and officials. (no pressure).  A court physician was even called to check for physical inaccuracies in the work. The Kings posed for their portraits (usually in the morning when the light was better) but there was no flattery allowed in the work. The painters were meant to capture the inner spirit of the king whilst also staying true to the physical appearance. They had to paint what they saw – warts and all. Skin problems, double chins, big noses, receding hairlines all had to stay as they were. So it seems there was no Joseon equivalent of air-brushing! However, the paintings were realistic, not photorealistic and followed the stylistic fashions of the day.

Portraits of Women

Portrait of  a Beauty by Shin Yun-bok source: Joongang Daily

Portraits of women began to increase again in the 19th century. Shin Yun-bok was one of the most famous painters of the Joseon period, but he could not be a court painter as his father worked in the dohwaseo and the laws at the time didn’t allow fathers and sons to work at the same place. So he painted pictures of ordinary life and many of the subjects were women – even though this was unusual in Confucian society. Only about 100 of his paintings still survive. The 2008 SBS drama The Painter of the Wind was based on a novel about his fictionalized life (not much is known about his real life) so I’ll add this to my list of dramas to watch.

After searching through books, journals, and websites about Joseon history I have discovered that the portraits I was looking for do not exist anymore. (or never did). But what a shame that so much of the remains of Joseon history have been destroyed.

The information in this post I found in the following journal articles, book, and websites:

Han Young Woo, A Review of Korean History vol. 2 Joseon Era, published by Kyongsaewon

Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

Yi Sŏng-mi, Asian Art Journal, volume 58 2008; Euigwe and the Documentation of Joseon Court Ritual Life

Cho Sunmie, Korea Journal Summer 2005, Joseon Dynasty Portraits of Meritorious Subjects

Lee Tao Ho, Korea Journal Summer 2005, Portrait Painting in the Joseon Dynasty

Yu Hong-June, Yeungnam University, Portraits of the Choson Dynasty

Joongang Daily


Filed under Dong Yi

2 responses to “Searching for original portraits of King Sukjong

  1. Lee

    Interesting information! Thanks.

    POTW may be about Shin Yun-bok but it’s not the story is not typical but a fascinating premise that the painter could be a woman instead. There are historical inaccuracies and so on but then, it’s a drama based on a fictional story. A very good dramatisation I might add, considering who’s in the lead role (she pulled it off so convincingly, I doubt any of her peers can replicate it)

    Miindo is a movie, also on Shin Yun-bok, of the same mold but took a different direction.

    Of the two, I’d rather prefer POTW.

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