Essay by Kwon Hyuk-san
Painted by Chae Yongshin, this portrait of Choe Ikhyeon depicts him from the waist up, wearing a fur hat and a “simui” (深衣), which is a scholar’s white hemp robe with black trim. The inscription on the upper right says “Choe Ikhyeon at the age of seventy-four (fur hat version),” while the one on the lower left states that the work was “painted in the eulsa year (i.e., 1905) by Chae Yongshin.” Interestingly, there is a slight discrepancy between the two inscriptions: in Korea, a person is said to be one on the day of his or her birth, so Choe Ikhyeon would have turned seventy-four in 1906, not 1905.
The portrait follows the characteristic style of Chae Yongshin in terms of the composition and pose of the sitter, the sense of volume, and the use of numerous strokes for shading. The subtle strokes with a fine brush are particularly evident in the fur hat, which is rendered in the same style as birds and animals in other paintings. The scholar’s robe is painted with thick layers of white, indicating that it was likely a winter robe that was intended to be worn during the coldest months of the year.
Most portraits of Joseon literati scholars show the subject wearing either a “samo” with an official’s robes, or a “bokgeon” with a simui (“scholar’s robe,” as seen here). Hence, the depiction of an esteemed figure like Choe Ikhyeon, who reached the fifth-rank of Joseon officials, in a fur hat, reminiscent of a hunter in winter, is extremely odd and unconventional.
Relationship between artist and subject
Born in 1833 in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Choe Ikhyeon passed the civil service examination in 1855 and eventually rose to become a fifth-ranked official. However, after criticizing a ruling of Regent Heungseon Daewongun, Choe fell out of favor, being demoted to a lesser post and then exiled to Jeju Island and Geoje Island. He is also known for playing a prominent role in the group that created the Wijeongcheoksa doctrine, which advocated international isolation and the exclusion of foreigners, and for helping to organize the uprising of the Uibyeong (“Righteous Armies”) against Japan. After the uprising failed, Choe was imprisoned on Japan’s Tsushima Island, where he died in 1906.
According to records found in Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon, Choe seems to have been very enthusiastic about having his portrait painted, as he apparently had been painted by several other artists prior to Chae Yongshin:
Bak Haeryang brought two monks named Inchal and Chundam from Jeongsimsa Temple and had them paint the portrait of Choe Ikhyeon and bring the portrait to Choe’s house in Pocheon. . . . Then another monk painter came to paint Choe’s portrait, and stayed for three months before departing.
(門人朴海量 率淨心寺僧寅札，春潭來謁 摸先生像 奉還抱川本第 (….) 今又卛畵僧入來 摸出先生像 三朔侍瑟而歸 (….) 勉菴先生文集 年譜 丙子 先生四十四歲)
“Timeline” (年譜) for May (of the lunar calendar), Byeongja year (i.e., 1876, at age 44), from Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon, Appendix of Volume 2
After passing the military service examination at the relatively late age of thirty-seven, Chae Yongshin served as a military official for about ten years. Then, from the time that he turned fifty-one, he became renowned as a portrait painter, painting many high-ranking officials and members of the royal court. He was also appointed as Chilgok County Magistrate and Jeongsan County Magistrate. While serving in the latter post, he met Choe Ikhyeon, whom he came to consider as a mentor. Thus, Chae began painting portraits of Choe Ikhyeon, as well as some of Choe’s students and acquaintances. In particular, after Korea became a colony of Japan in 1910, Chae actively painted portraits of many patriotic activists.
Once again, records from Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon reveal interesting details about how this portrait came to be produced. Apparently, Choe Yeongjo, the son of Choe Ikhyeon, was not satisfied with the existing portraits of his father that his family possessed, and thus asked Chae Yongshin to paint two new sets of portraits (two copies per set) of his father:
Both Jo Jaehak and Choe Yeongjo (the eldest son of Choe Ikhyeon) had portraits of Choe Ikhyeon that they had commissioned earlier. Although there were already two or three portraits of Choe Ikhyeon, Choe Yeongjo did not particularly care for them, feeling that the likenesses were not faithful enough. After discussing this matter with Jo Jaehak, Choe Yeongjo decided to have a new portrait of his father painted. Serendipitously, Chae Yongshin from Jeonju, who was famous for his paintings, was appointed as the Jeongsan County Magistrate at this very time. Thus, Jo Yeongseon went to see the new magistrate, and asked him to paint a new set of portraits; one portrait was enshrined in Choe’s house, while the other was taken by Jo Yeongseon. Later, a second set was painted, with one portrait being enshrined in Taesansa Shrine in Taein, and the other going to O Bongyeong.
(長子永祚 與門人曺在學 繪藏先生像 前此所繪有數三本 而皆失眞未愜意 永祚與曺在學 議方改繪 全州人蔡龍臣 以畵名 適宰定山 遂使門人趙泳善 往邀寫出二本 一本藏于家 一本趙泳善奉去 其後又移模二本 一本奉于泰仁泰山祠 一本門人吳鳳泳奉去 先生七十三歲.)
“Timeline” (年譜) for February 20 of Eulsa year (i.e., 1905, at age 73), from Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon, Appendix of Volume 3
Notably, the Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon confirms that Choe was seventy-three years old in 1905. As such, one of the painting’s inscriptions must contain an error: if the portrait was painted in 1905, then Choe Ikhyeon was seventy-three years old, not seventy-four. To date, this mistake has never been explained.
According to the following letter from Choe Yeongjo (Choe Ikhyeon’s son) to Chae Yongshin (found in Biography of Chae Yongshin), it seems that the artist continued painting portraits of Choe Ikhyeon even after his death:
Did you hear that the portraits of my late father were confiscated? Now that the shrine contains only an empty space, I have nowhere to turn my gaze. How can I ever express my grief, which extends to the sky? In order to show respect to my father, one of his former students Ji Heonha, who is currently in Hongsan (present-day Hongsan-myeon, Buyeo, South Chungcheong Province), wishes to make a copy of the original portrait and to enshrine it in the same manner as the previous one. For this, there is no one else I can turn to but you (i.e., Chae Yongshin). Thus, I am writing to you now, although I am reluctant to ask you to travel all the way here. I know how difficult it must be for you to paint with your eyesight at the age of eighty, but I hope that you can understand the unavoidable circumstances and do me this great service. I believe that we should generally keep the style and clothing as they were, although it would be better to have a hat, a belt, and a formal robe.
The portraits in Gokseong and Hampyeong were returned and enshrined. However, the portraits in Jeongsan and Pocheon were burnt, bringing me deep sorrow. But it is now permitted to reproduce the portrait and enshrine it, so we should not hesitate. My hand has begun to feel numb, so I should stop here. I am very sorry that I did not exercise adequate propriety here. I, Choe Yeongjo, bow to this letter and send it on May 21, 1922 (lunar calendar).
(弟惟先親眞像之曾被押收 想或入聞 而遺祠空虛 瞻依無所 窮天之痛 夫復何言 今在鴻山池友憲夏 以爲師之誠 將欲摹寫 一本爲依舊奉安之計 而此事非令座 無可相議處 故不憚遠役 玆以委進 固知八旬眼力 有難繪素 而幸望諒此情勢 另念施惠如何 丹靑則依前以帽帶章服 似好耳 谷城咸平皆已還安 而惟獨定山抱川二本 入於灰燼云 尤切痛恨 而今有模影享祠之許可 則不必以此趦趄 而手痿畧此 不備禮 壬戌後月念一 崔生永祚拜上)
From Biography of Chae Yongshin (translated into Korean from Chinese characters by Yi Duhui and Yi Chunggu)
This letter indicates that Chae Yongshin maintained a strong relationship with Choe Ikhyeon’s family and had painted at least one posthumous portrait.
Given what we know about the relationship between Chae Yongshin and Choi Ikhyeon, why would the artist make the surprising decision to depict his subject wearing a fur hat? For a possible explanation, we can consider another unconventional portrait from the late Joseon period: Self Portrait of Kang Sehwang. One of the leading artistic and cultural figures of his time, Kang Sehwang was a skilled artist who was depicted in various different portraits (several of which are extant). In addition to being a rare case of a self-portrait painted by a literati artist, Self Portrait of Kang Sehwang is particularly notable for the unusual combination of clothing, which clearly violates the customs of the time. To be specific, Kang chose to paint himself wearing a traditional overcoat (casual clothing for everyday use) with the official hat known as a “samo” (紗帽), which was worn only with one’s official robes. Well aware of this indiscretion, Kang addressed his peculiar choice in an inscription on the painting:
Who is this man? His hair and beard are all white. He wears an official hat and a casual overcoat. Aha! While his name is found in the official government register, his heart dwells in the idyllic countryside. His heart is filled with knowledge gained from reading thousands of books, and his hands are infused with the hidden power to write exquisite calligraphy that will even cause the mountaintops to tremble. But how can other people ever know these things? I just painted this for fun. This old man is seventy years old, and his penname is Nojuk (露竹). I painted this self-portrait and wrote this encomium in the imin year.
(彼何人斯 鬚眉晧白 頂烏帽 披野服 於以見心山林 而名朝籍 胸藏二酉 筆搖伍嶽 人那得知 我自爲樂 翁年七十 翁號露竹 其眞自寫 其贊自作 歲在玄黓攝提格)
Based on this writing, Kang Sehwang wished to demonstrate that, although he was resigning from his government service, he would never forget the power and prestige of the past. It seems likely that Chae Yongshin was guided by a similar sentiment in painting Portrait of Choe Ikhyeon (fur hat version).
As discussed, it is unclear whether the portrait was painted in 1905 or 1906, but in either case, Choe Ikhyeon was embroiled in political circumstances in which he demonstrated his staunch loyalty and dignity. In 1905, Choe was appointed to multiple government posts that he repeatedly resigned from. He also wrote several petitions to Emperor Gojong urging him to make every effort to prevent further Japanese incursions. Due to this anti-Japanese stance, Choe Ikhyeon was arrested by the Japanese army in February. Collected Writings of Choe Ikhyeon record that a portrait was painted on February 20, 1905. In 1906, despite his old age, Choe continued his activism against the Japanese by organizing the Korean resistance army. After his efforts eventually failed, he was again arrested by the Japanese army and imprisoned in Tsushima Island of Japan, where he died from illness in 1906.
Rather than depicting Choe Ikhyeon as a high-ranking government official with a resplendent official’s robe or as a noble literatus with an immaculate scholar’s robe and hat, Chae Yongshin painted him in a thick winter robe and a fur hat, a suitable outfit for a leader of the Korean resistance army. Based on this choice, Chae must have wanted to show Choe Ikhyeon as a loyal activist who was deeply concerned over the uncertain fate of his homeland. Unlike the majority of portraits commissioned either by the sitter or his descendants, Portrait of Choe Ikhyeon embodies the unique personal relationship between the artist and the subject.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.