Kim Hong-do, a Distinguished Painter of Joseon Dynasty


Portraying Joseon
The cultural scene of the late Joseon Dynasty was marked by Silhak, a Confucian social reform movement, and a landscape painting style called Jingyung, meaning “true view.” While scholars of 17th century Joseon immersed themselves in developing a new school of thought to improve the lives of the people, prominent painters of the time, in particular Gyeomjae Jeong Seon, founded a painting style for landscapes that required the painter to actually look at the scenery around Korea. This new type of landscape developed into a national style and it is the great painter Kim Hong-do, better known by his pen name Danwon, who completed the “true view” style of painting that originated with Jeong Seon. Kim Hong-do’s paintings depicted scenes of daily life in a realistic manner and through these paintings, Kim Hong-do portrayed a true representation of Joseon on canvas.

An Outstanding Student

Kim Hong-do was born in 1745 in Ansan, Gyeonggi province. At the age of 7, Kim Hong-do studied under the renowned art critic of the time Pyoam Kang Se-hwang, who was then living in seclusion in Ansan. Kang wrote “Danwongi” for his pupil, describing his impression and evaluation of Kim Hong-do’s artistic talent:

“Danwon studied drawing from early childhood and there was nothing he wasn’t able to depict. He was capable of painting portraits, landscapes, Taoist paintings, Buddhist paintings, flowers and fruits, birds and insects, fish and crab, and all of these were so exquisite and skillful that even when compared to the works of the ancients, virtually no one could compete with him. Danwon was especially talented in depicting common life. When he painted scenes from the street, port, shop, marketplace, examination site, and theaters, people exclaimed his work to be marvelous. To paint in such a manner, he must have solved the eternal mystery with his mystical heart and wise knowledge.”

Becoming the Best Painter in Joseon
Before he was 20, Kim Hong-do joined the Royal Bureau of Paintings, known as Dohwaseo, where only the country’s most talented painters were allowed. In 1765, Kim Hong-do painted the scene of King Yeongjo’s 71st birthday all by himself, and thereby his talent was recognized. In 1771, he painted the portrait of the eldest grandson of the King, the future King Jeongjo, and 10 years later he painted the portrait of King Jeongjo.

In his 30s, Kim Hong-do had already made his name as a painter and was appointed to a position in the government by the King, an honor rarely enjoyed by an artist. While serving as an official in Andong, Gyeongsang province, Kim Hong-do enjoyed socializing with the commoners and spent time doing activities with them each season. He captured these moments in daily life and painted them on canvas, leaving some of his best genre paintings such as “Ssireum,” “Gilssam” and “Seodang.” With his genius talent, Kim Hong-do could freely control the line’s flow, thickness and speed, which allowed him to vividly describe each figure’s emotion. Kim Hong-do’s genre painting is not only of outstanding artistic merit, but also an important reference to the daily life in Joseon Dynasty.

Establishing a Model of Korean Beauty
After his life as an official, Kim Hong-do turned to paintings of flowers and birds and historical paintings. In 1788, he traveled to the region of Geumgangsan and painted scenic spots by order of King Jeongjo. When the King moved his father’s grave to Hwaseong and constructed Hyeollyungwon, Kim Hong-do took part in creating the altar portrait of Buddha. While showing competence in all areas of painting, Kim Hong-do also accepted the new trend from the West and continued to challenge himself. In his 50s, Kim Hong-do displayed his masterly skills in “Haesanseonhakdo,” “Masanchungaengdo” and “Semado.”

In painting, Kim Hong-do had reached the level of unbeatable genius, but he had difficulty maintaining his livelihood. The exact year of his death is unknown, but his last letter was written in February 1805 and no work of his has been found since then. It is therefore asserted that he died in 1806 at 62 years old. He had portrayed Joseon throughout his life and he will continue to live on through his marvelous works, which are cherished to this day.

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