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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
SPRING 2006 Vol.20 No.1
  Portrait of King Taejo ― Esteemed Founder of the Joseon Dynasty
  Cho Insoo
Professor of Visual Art, Korean National University of Art
Photos by Kwon Tae-kyun
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Gyeonggijeon Hall in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do province, enshrines the portrait of Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408), the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), who ruled as King Taejo from 1392 to 1398. In the portrait, he is depicted as a middle-aged man wearing a blue robe and black headpiece, staring directly ahead with a purposeful expression. He is seated on a red throne, which is situated atop a brightly colored carpet, against a blank background.
Upon careful scrutiny, the painting reveals a wealth of exquisite detail. Especially impressive are his silk robe, decorated with gold-leaf embroidery, and the colorful carpet that seems to somehow rise upward. Although this painting was completed in 1872, based on a previous work, it is a faithful re-creation that carefully preserves the portrait style of the 14th century, at the start of the Joseon Dynasty era. It is one of only two well-preserved royal portraits from the early period of the Joseon Dynasty, and the only remaining visual record of the founder of Joseon.
Joseon Dynasty Portraits
In terms of Korean art, Joseon Dynasty portraits are ranked among its most noteworthy achievements, in particular regard to their exceptional artistic quality and incredible quantity. The portrait subjects included the ruling elite, such as the king and royal family, aristocrats, and prominent religious figures. The painters were selected from a pool of professional artists who were known for their artistic repute. Accordingly, Joseon Dynasty portraits are characterized by their exquisite artistry and an extraordinary level of realistic detail. Since the king stood at the pinnacle of Joseon society, the portraits of kings were rendered with the utmost care, befitting their supreme stature.
Portraits of kings, which were commonly known as eojin, would be housed in separate buildings called jinjeon. When a royal portrait was to be undertaken, an ad hoc group, or dogam, was established to oversee the proceedings. When the portrait was completed, a detailed account of the production process would be recorded in Uigwe (Records of Dogam), which included the reason for painting the portrait, selection process of the designated painter, various materials used, and the names of everyone involved with the project.
It is not known exactly when the painting of royal portraits first originated in Korea, but it is thought to have become a regular practice prior to the end of the Three Kingdoms period in 668. During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the painting of royal portraits flourished, leading to a proliferation of the construction of jinjeon buildings for their display, of which the best known is Gyeongnyeong-jeon in Gaeseong, where the portraits of several Goryeo kings are housed.
When the Joseon Dynasty superseded Goryeo, it carried on the Goryeo tradition of royal portraits, resulting in the production of ever more of these works. In particular, King Taejo commissioned a number of portraits of himself, at various settings, related to his founding of the dynasty and the relocation of its capital. As a result, six (jinjeon) buildings in different locations were constructed for housing Taejo’s portraits, including one in Joseon’s new capital of Hanseong (today’s Seoul). Another was built in Jeonju, where Taejo’s ancestors had lived for generations, which was named Gyeonggijeon in 1442.
At Gyeonggijeon today, the Taejo portrait is presented against the backdrop of a folding screen, with panels depicting the sun, moon, and five peaks, in accordance with the traditional practice of placing this kind of background behind the king’s throne in Joseon Dynasty palaces. In this way, the portrait of Taejo is being respected as if he were still the ruling sovereign. In the portrait, King Taejo is presented from a straight-on frontal view, wearing a black ikseongwan, the official headpiece of the king, and a blue royal robe, or gollyongpo, while seated on his throne. Two flaps protrude from the back of the headpiece, representing the wings of a cicada, whose piercing sound is said to be expressive of sovereign dignity and its metamorphosis a symbol of rebirth. Gollyongpo was the everyday attire of the king. Later kings of the Joseon Dynasty usually wore red attire, but Taejo is shown in a blue robe, apparently reflecting a carry-over influence of the Goryeo-style portraits.
Depiction of Individuality
A notable feature of the Taejo portrait is its use of a direct frontal perspective, since the vast majority of Joseon Dynasty portraits depicted the subject at a slight angle, rather than facing straight forward. Perhaps this frontal portrayal was intended to distinguish Taejo as the dynasty founder. His face is depicted in a restrained manner, with a few simple lines, whereas his attire, throne, and the carpet are highly detailed and vividly colored. This contrast served to emphasize the authority and dignity of the king as the sovereign of the nation and its people.
At this time, there is no way to know Taejo’s actual appearance; however, in the portrait he is depicted with wide cheekbones, small eyes, a small mouth, and large ears. These facial features are consistent with the descriptions of King Taejo’s appearance that are recorded in historical documents. A mole is shown above his right eyebrow, as an example of the significance attached to the realism of Joseon-style portraits. This portrayal of Taejo’s individuality, in terms of his physical features and innermost character, is what qualifies this portrait as a consummate masterpiece. There are numerous portraits of Joseon Dynasty kings, but none can quite compare to the sublimity of the King Taejo portrait. To understand this, one need only visit Gyeonggijeon Hall, where the epitome of Joseon Dynasty royal portraits is on display.
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