By Yang Sung-jin
King Taejong, the third monarch of the Choson Kingdom, had a clear idea of what a true portrait painting should be. According to a record of 1444, the king said, “To quote ancient wisdom, the slightest difference between the portrait and the person makes the work meaningless.”
The king’s strict criteria was understandable. A court artist once painted portrait and apparently it displeased “the person,” King Taejong himself.
So King Taejong, then retired from the office, ordered the painting to be burned up. The portrait escaped the furnace only because the incumbent King, Sejong, insisted on preserving it.
One year previously, King Sejong had asked the government’s official artists, or hwawons, to draw a set of royal portraits including a rendering of King Taejo, the founder of the Choson Kingdom.
The question was, how could the artists find “the person” — King Taejo died in 1408 — in composing such an important, if not sacred portrait?
The answer was to find other portraits faithfully reflecting the image of King Taejo. Composed while the founder was alive, several of these were scattered around the country.
King Sejong collected them all for the purpose of creating a definitive version. Once the works were done, the king put all the royal portraits in Sonwonjon in Changdok Palace, a newly renovated structure dedicated to preserving the realistic images of royal figures.
The need to produce portraits of kings and queens on a regular basis sometimes provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for artists to jump on the career ladder as hwawons, most of whom retained low-ranking offices.
Choe Kyong was one of the luckiest of these. In 1472, Choe impressed King Songjong with a portrait of the king’s father, Tokjong. As a reward, Choe was promoted to “Tangsangkwan,” a high-ranking position the achievement of which was virtually unthinkable for other court officials.
The opposition to Choe’s unprecedented promotion was prompt. One official voiced deep concern, saying that “earning a high office with the stroke of a paint brush is disgraceful to the entire government.”
Another official argued, “The government employs hwawons in order to produce paintings. Royal paintings are what they should do, not aim for great achievements. Just giving him a gift such as clothes or a horse would have been sufficient.”
Portrait for Promotion
Despite repeated appeals from disgruntled officials, King Songjong did not back down on his decision, sparking a heated controversy.
An official named Song Jun said, “There is no precedent for appointing a hwawon as a Tangsangkwan. If historiographers record this incident, future generations will cite it as a pretext to do the same.”
Park Si-hyong, another high-ranking official, argued, “From earlier on, scholars and farmers were given governmental offices, while technicians and merchants were overlooked. The reason for this practice was that the trades of technicians and merchants were vulgar and unsuitable for tasks in the government.”
The issue was that Choe was given a third-grade post, two steps higher than the normally accepted highest ranking for hwawons. In addition, the king’s favors extended to giving Choe additional titles and land as a reward.
Choe’s enviable career as a court artist, despite an unimpressive family background, got on the nerves of mainstream government officials. However, Choe’s career was without adversity. He did have his ups and downs, almost in a roller-coaster style.
On March 7, 1463, King Sejo abruptly fired Choe Kyong, then a ranking painter for Tohwawon, an agency in charge of producing the paintings used for public projects.
According to an article in “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” Choe was born to a salt farmer in Kyonggi-do. Even as a child, Choe spent his time drawing portraits and animal pictures on the ground with a small whip normally used for prodding cattle.
The paintings hinted at Choe’s innate talent and a passerby commented, “this boy will succeed as a painter.”
Indeed, it was not long before his artistic skills thrust Choe in the spotlight at Tohwawon. His continued efforts to sharpen his technical edge led to successive promotions, often over the heads of his colleagues.
End of Ambition
Choe was especially gifted at socializing with higher-ups. His shrewd instincts in establishing close relations with the power elite led to a handsome payoff in the form of a high-ranking office.
But his ambition went overboard. Capitalizing on the scarce information about his family background, Choe did not hesitate to create his own version, citing whatever names were needed to paint him as a genuine high-class official. Meanwhile, Choe’s real relatives in his hometown were begging on the street.
His vain desire for fame finally pushed Choe to seek an official certificate, which he hoped to use to upgrade his social standing. But the Office of the Censor-General balked at issuing the certificate.
Angered by the rejection, Choe appealed to the king, saying that “the Office of Censor-General refuses to give me the due certificate for the simple reason that I am a painter who draws Buddhist images.”
King Sejo called Lee Ji, an official at the Censor-General’s Office and Choe Kyong to appear before him at the court, asking Lee for the reason that Choes application had been denied.
“I did not accept his request because I doubted his background as a painter. I have no idea about his paintings of Buddhist images,” Lee said.
To this, Choe Kyong argued, “I asked Lee Ji for the reason my request was denied and he said my background as a painter was in question. So I told him that I am different from the other hwawons because I painted royal portraits during the reign of King Sejong and other works, including Buddhist statues and portraits at the time time. Lee said the Buddhist paintings were the chief reason for the rejection.”
The argument was apparently based on the fact that Buddhism, the national religion of the preceding Koryo Dynasty, was looked down upon by the Choson Dynasty, which had adopted Confucianism as its governing ideology.
Choe further informed the king that another official, Ku Sa, had told him about the rejection, which Choe said backed up his claim that the Buddhist paintings he had made were the real reason for his rejection.
Ku Sa was immediately summoned and subject to a state inquiry. The truth was that Choe had told a lie.
Deeply infuriated by Choe’s deceitful maneuvering, the king fired the prominent painter.
And prominent he was. Despite his setback, 10 years later Choe painted a masterful portrait of the late Tokjong before disappearing from the political scene.
Given that one portrait painting in the Choson Kingdom decided the fate of numerous hwawons, the quality of such portraits must have been extremely high. Unfortunately, only four royal portraits have survived to the present day a dishearteningly short list for those who wish to study the masterful strokes of the old painters _ and the true images of Choson kings and queens.