(34) A Look at Choson Court Painters

By Yang Sung-jin

Making a living as a professional painter has never been easy. Now that the nation’s economy is in tatters, conditions are even worse, with the dampened sales of paintings pushing many painters to the edge. A sad instance: A painter of medium standing was arrested last Wednesday on charges of having secretly videotaped a number of women in department store restrooms, hotel pools and shower rooms. The painter said he was attempting to raise the money necessary to finance an exhibition he had planned to give next month.

Professional painters of the Choson Kingdom were free from such hairsplitting monetary concerns. They were formally employed by the government and given the status of public servants at “Tohwawon,” a state-run agency formed at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty.

The number of government-subsidized painters was initially 20, and later their ranks were expanded to 30 as a result of increasing demand. Candidates for one of these positions belonged to the lower middle class and had to pass a state examination to become official “hwawon,” or official government painters.

Given their modest backgrounds, the promotion of these hwawons in the ranks of government was limited. However, it is still notable that the Choson government offered financial support to professional painter’s by placing them on public projects.

In 1429, King Sejong was briefed on the Tohwawon: “The number of painters working at Tohwawon is only 20 but there are so many paintings to be made. As a result, there is a serious shortage of painters. In addition, learning the techniques to become a professional painter is really difficult, and it takes at least 10 years. So, we will have to recruit more candidates for the job without restricting the number.”

Another proposal to the king was to give official posts to those painters who put together lengthy government careers. Both requests were granted immediately.

Dispute over Public Painters

Of course, hwawons were not alone in shaping the trends of Choson painting. While hwawons made paintings accurately depicting state affairs, the yangban literati painters engineered the importation of foreign techniques, mainly from China.

But the hwawon system was not without its problems. In 1471, Tohwawon was renamed “Tohwaso,” and its status was downgraded a notch, reflecting the sentiment of other government officials who downplayed the role of painters.

On Aug. 4, 1475, a rancorous dispute flared up over the role of the Tohwaso. The bone of contention was King Songjong’s behavior. The king was a seasoned calligrapher and a great aficionado of paintings himself with a keen eye for quality work. His taste for paintings resulted in the establishment of another state-funded agency for painters, who were required to make sketches of the birds which lived in the palace compound.

Officials were quick to oppose the king’s move, saying that it was unacceptable to have painters in the court. Infuriated, King Songjong threatened to abolish the Tohwaso system.

“This morning, official Lee Se-kwang said it is wrong for me to ask hwawons to draw trees and birds, so I am planning to scrap the system altogether,” the king announced.

In response to the king’s abrupt turnabout, officials expressed their view that one persons’ prejudice was not an adequate reason to abolish the Tohwaso system.

“If you want to admire trees and birds, just watching the living things themselves is sufficient. Why do we have to draw them?” the king asked.

But the officials reiterated their opposition to the king’s proposal. Eventually, King Sonjong expressed his displeasure at official Lee Se-kwang’s utterance and announced that the Tohwaso would remain intact.

On Aug. 10, a similar showdown took place between the king and a number of officials over paintings.

Monkey Business

“The other day, I unknowingly accepted a monkey, a gift from the Japanese but I soon realized my mistake and ordered them not to give me such things in the future. But what’s wrong with painting a picture of a monkey, you stubborn officials?” King Songjong asked.

Official An Son said, “We are not calling for the abolition of the Tohwaso system. Previous kings used to look at theme paintings to get a glimpse of people’s lives and suffering, which provided a direction for their government policies. But Your Majesty ordered the capture of living birds and the completion of paintings in a sacred palace, which is beyond our understanding.”

The Choson aristocracy had very strict standards as to what constituted “good art.” Kings were urged to stay away from boisterous and decorative artworks and instead, paintings stressing morality or realistically depicting the lives of ordinary people were recommended. King Songjong’s preference for “art for art’s sake” paintings was therefore quite disturbing to court officials.

King Injo, who took the throne through a coup d’etat, was also deeply interested in paintings. But even after a Manchu invasion put the nation in ruins, the king continued to indulged in his hobby, which angered officials.

On Dec. 24, 1628, the Office of the Censor-General filed an appeal to the king: “There is a rumor that hwawon Lee Jing is composing a lot of paintings at the request of Your Majesty. If the rumor is just a rumor, then that’s all right, but if it’s true, it cannot be tolerated given the wretched state of the nation, devastated by the war.”

The strong censure, however, did not dissuade the King. In 1645, he secretly summoned Lee Jing, even though the painter was in mourning for his half-blooded mother.

In 1646, the artist was spotted painting for the king in the palace, which prompted official Cho Kyong to file an appeal: “I’ve heard that Your Majesty is giving yourself up to the paintings with Lee Jing. In Chinese history, King Hyonjong and Huijong’s reckless indulgence in paintings put their nation in jeopardy.”

The only artistic subject matter for which kings could get approval from officials was the difficult process of farming and other conventional daily labors. The themes of these works contrasted with the comfortable life of the court, from which officials hoped that the king would learn a lesson on how to govern the nation in a fair and just manner.