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The artist, the scholar and the gentleman

by Kwon Hyeeun, 5 August 2019

Portrait of Kang Sehwang, 1783 by Yi Myeonggi
Portrait of Kang Sehwang, 1783 by Yi Myeonggi

The old man in the portrait sits neatly, white beard and eyebrows framing
aloof eyes. His countenance is one of introspection, as if looking back and within, contemplating the sum of his life experiences. He is surrounded by tightly-scripted characters in the form of a poem:

Who is that man?
His beard and eyebrows are white.
Wearing the hat of an official and
the robe of a hermit,
He holds a government post,
but his heart is for solitude in the mountains.
He bears ten thousand books in his
mind and has mastery of writing.
Who in the world would know?
I alone enjoy it.

This elderly man of seventy with
the pseudonym Nojuk (露竹)
Draws himself and writes this
eulogy with his own hands.
It is the year 1782.

Held in the collection of Seoul’s National Museum of Korea, the work is a self-portrait by the eminent eighteenth-century Joseon Dynasty scholar and painter, Kang Sehwang (1713-1791), at the age of 70.

Whether in the East or West, a self-portrait is a work in which the painter probes his or her own existence rather than attempting to convey objective facts that might be observed by a third party. For unknown reasons, only a few Joseon painters ever created self-portraits. In 1782 Kang Sehwang painted this self-portrait whilst reflecting on his seven decades of life, filling in the background with a poem that related his inner thoughts.

While Kang is elegantly seated and fully dressed, those familiar with Joseon-era clothing would immediately notice something awkward about his attire. He is wearing an official’s hat, part of the authorised uniform worn by Joseon bureaucrats when attending the royal court. However, he is in a jade-coloured outer garment called a dopo, which was a scholar’s everyday garb. This is as discordant as someone today wearing a top hat in combination with their daily casual clothing.

The incongruence reflects a remarkable life chronology. Although Kang was from an influential aristocratic clan and thus eligible to serve in high-ranking government posts, he was forced to give up this status as a young man due to a family scandal involving Kang’s eldest brother. It led to Kang retreating to the arts. Immersing himself in painting, calligraphy, poetry and music – notably the geomungo, a traditional stringed instrument – he achieved great renown, based on the profound knowledge he developed, and his discerning eye. Decades later, in 1773, when Kang Sehwang’s second son Kang In (1729-1791) passed the civil service examination, King Yeongjo – who was aware of Kang Sehwang’s reputation – recruited him into government service. It was another turning point. At the advanced age of 61, Kang Sehwang began serving as a government official, and continued to do so into his old age.

Nine years later, at age 70, Kang Sehwang’s portrait-poem alluded to this dual identity – as nobleman in government service and artist with an elegant and unconventional mind – with the words: ‘Wearing the hat of an official and the robe of a hermit, He holds a government post, but his heart is for solitude in the mountains’.

It was an indication that Kang wished to show the world his self-identity as a reclusive intellectual. In order to express his inner consciousness, he elaborately depicted each strand of his beard and threw himself into realistically portraying his wrinkles, skin, compressed lips, and pupils. The poem written in the blank areas of the painting reveals that the free-spirited Kang Sehwang (at his age) took pride in his wealth of knowledge and artistic talent. He expressed confidence in achieving the ‘Three Perfections’ – the mastery of poetry, calligraphy and painting – which were the highest virtues of the literati during the Joseon Dynasty.

In the overall history of the Joseon Dynasty, the eighteenth century – when Kang Sehwang was artistically active – is considered a local Renaissance, with the blossoming of art and literature. Joseon intellectuals who lived in this dynamic period began to awaken to new knowledge and experiences introduced from the West, and produced distinctive artworks. Kang built his own aesthetic based on this intellectual curiosity, combined with his talent and passion for artistic expression, and developed mastery in elements including landscapes and portraiture, as well as painting the ‘four gracious plants’ – plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo – a highly significant genre in literati painting.

Moreover, he was held in high regard as a critic and thinker, due to the breadth of his knowledge and discriminating eye for art and literature. His active engagement and artistic acumen allowed him to build a network of contacts from diverse social backgrounds, stretching from the king to the jungin (middle people between aristocrats and common people). Indeed, Kang Sehwang placed himself at the heart of the rapidly changing art world of the eighteenth century.

Besides this self-portrait of Kang Sehwang, revealing his strong sense of identity, the National Museum of Korea holds another portrait of Kang done by Yi Myeonggi (1756- pre-1813), one of the prominent court painters in the late Joseon period. Yi was famous for his realistic and refined paintings, works that employed western shading techniques. Kang Gwan, the third son of Kang Sehwang, stated that this portrait ‘depicted my father’s spirit and mind most satisfactorily’.

The National Museum of Korea also holds portraits of other prominent figures from Kang Sehwang’s family. Acquired on separate occasions, the museum came to collect portraits of five generations of the Kang family in a lineal descent, comprising Kang Hyeon (Kang Sehwang’s father); Kang Sehwang; Kang In (Kang Sehwang’s son); Kang Yio (Kang Sehwang’s grandson); and Kang No (Kang Sehwang’s great-grandson). A close examination of these portraits shows the similarity in their appearances and facial structures, illustrating that the five figures are genealogically related.

During the Joseon Dynasty, a family’s prestige could be measured by the number of family members who joined the Giroso (耆老所, Hall of Venerable Elders), for high-ranking officials over the age of 70. Kang Sehwang’s family, a part of the nobility of the Joseon Dynasty, has been referred to as a ‘family of three generations of distinguished elders’, since his grandfather Kang Baeknyeon (1603-1681), father Kang Hyeon (1650-1733), and Kang Sehwang himself were successively granted the honour of entering the Giroso. Throughout the five hundred years of the Joseon Dynasty, only five clans received this designation.

The full-length portrait of Kang Hyeon (the father of Kang Sehwang) dressed in an official robe suggests that he was of noble birth. Kang Sehwang’s descendants are also depicted wearing official robes. The portrait of Kang In, who closely resembles his father Kang Sehwang, is presumed to have been produced around the same time that Yi Myeonggi produced his portrait of Kang Sehwang. It is interesting to compare these two portraits of a father and son, with their appearances so similar.

Since Kang Sehwang’s grandson Kang Yio (1788-?) was well versed in poetry, calligraphy, and painting, he befriended contemporaneous calligraphers and painters as well.

His portrait was produced by his close friend, the painter Yi Jaegwan (1783-1838). It is interesting to note that Kang Yio faces forward in this portrait, while the sitters for most portraits from the Joseon period are depicted in three-quarter view. The portrait of Kang No (1809-1886), the great-grandson of Kang Sehwang and the final descendant in this portrait group, presents the subject in his seventies, as it was produced to celebrate his seventy-first birthday in the ninth lunar month of 1879.

As an official, painter, and poet, Kang Sehwang is a significant figure in the history of Korean painting. His self-portrait is a mirror that reflects his inner life, and the duality he experienced and reconciled. The portraits spanning five generations of the prominent Kang family indicate how Kang Sehwang’s proficiency as an administrator and talent as an artist were handed down to his progeny.

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