Essay by Moon Dongsoo
In this portrait, the literati scholar Sim Deukgyeong is seated primly on a chair, wearing a pointed dongpagwan hat and his everyday robes, which are tied in the front with a thin jade-colored band with tassels. Sim is also wearing ornate unhye shoes made from jade-colored leather, with his heels slightly raised from the ground. With his full, healthy body and ruby lips, Sim seems to be the picture of health, but in fact, this is a posthumous portrait painted after he was deceased.
Looking at this portrait of the late scholar, how would Sim’s family and friends have felt? Instantly recognizing their deceased loved one, they must have been overcome with a powerful mix of emotions. Looking at a portrait of someone we know arouses deep feelings of love and joy, often opening up a new communion with the person. Such feelings are the foundation of jeonsin (傳神, chuanshen in Chinese), which is the belief that a person’s spirit is transmitted through a portrait.
Life of Sim Deukgyeong
Sim Deukgyeong, whose courtesy name is Sasang (士常), came from a family from Cheongsong. His biological father was Sim Dan, a government official from Baengnyeon-dong, Haenam, who served as Second Minister of the State Tribunal and Director of the Five Military Commands Headquarters. However, in accordance with common practice at the time, Sim Deukgyeong was adopted and raised by his uncle Sim Ju, who had no children of his own.
Sim Deukgyeong’s maternal grandfather was the famed scholar Yun Seondo, who also taught Sim’s biological father, Sim Dan. Thus, from childhood, Sim Deukgyeong shared a close friendship with his cousin Yun Du-seo, the great-grandchild of Yun Seondo and the artist of this portrait. Although Sim Deukgyeong was five years younger than Yun Du-seo, they both applied for the civil service examination in 1693. According to the “List of Successful Applicants of the Exam of 1693” (癸酉式年司馬榜目), Sim Deukgyeong finished thirtieth among the 100 applicants that year. Although both he and Yun Du-seo passed the literary licentiate examination, neither one of them accepted a government post, instead deciding to dedicate themselves to their artistic and scholarly pursuits.
Yun Du-seo, a painter inspired by Su Shi
Yun Du-seo idolized the esteemed sages of ancient China, such as Confucius and Mencius, as well as the Neo-Confucian literati and writers of the Song Dynasty, such as Zhu Xi and Su Shi. Yun collected writings and paintings from Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms (三才圖會) and other related books, and also made his own paintings of these famous figures. Yun especially revered Su Shi, one of the “Eight Masters of the Tang and Song,” who was an expert in Confucianism and Zhu Xi’s philosophy, as well as an excellent poet, calligrapher, and painter. In nearly every aspect of his life, Yun Du-seo modeled himself after Su Shi.
In his own paintings, for example, Yun was strongly influenced by Su Shi’s theory of jeonsin (傳神), which suggested that a person’s spirit is transmitted through a portrait. In line with this theory, Yun believed that a great painting could only be achieved through close observation of an object or person. Describing this concept through his theory of jeonsin, Su Shi wrote, “Jeonsin and observation are based on the same principle. If you wish to capture a person’s candid spirit, then you must observe the person while he or she is engaged with other people. If you dress the person up in formal clothes, asking them to look sharp and to focus on a single object, then how can you hope to capture their candid spirit?”
Su Shi believed that, while one’s external appearance constantly changed, one’s internal nature remained forever constant. Thus, he prioritized the mind and spirit, which he felt could only be ascertained by watching a person under natural conditions, rather than in a staged environment. For him, without observing someone in their natural state, an artist could never hope to truly capture their unique qualities and characteristics. Yun Du-seo’s admiration for Su Shi is apparent from his writings, such as Humble Writings on Paintings (記拙), his review of Su Shi’s Bamboo (墨竹圖), and Heirloom of the Yun Family (尹氏家寶). Notably, the latter text includes Yun’s own painting Portrait of Su Shi, which captures the inherent dignity of a writer’s daily life. Yun chose to paint Su Shi wearing a hakchangui robe (鶴氅衣) and dongpagwan hat (東坡冠), which was named after Su Shi’s penname “Dongpo” (東坡).
As mentioned, Yun was close friends with Sim Deukgyeong, who died on August 21, 1710, at the age of thirty-eight. To honor his deceased friend, Yun spent about four months painting Portrait of Sim Deukgyeong, in which he projected the scholarly qualities of Su Shi onto Sim.
Analysis of Portrait of Sim Deukgyeong
Three pieces of silk were joined together to serve as the canvas for Portrait of Sim Deukgyeong. Determined to produce a highly realistic portrait, Yun Du-seo meticulously considered his friend’s facial features and details, as well as his height. Sim Deukgyeong’s sitting height seems to be about 133 or 134 cm. Based on these proportions, he must have been much taller than 161 cm, which recent research has shown to be the average height of a Joseon man from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.
Written across the top of the painting in clerical script calligraphy is the title of the painting: “定齋處士沈公眞” (Jeongjae Cheosa Sim Deukgyeong’s Portrait). “Jeongjae” is the penname of Sim Deukgyeong, while a cheosa is a literati scholar who elected not to serve in the government.
Seated on a rectangular chair with no backrest, Sim is wearing a pyramidal dongpagwan hat and an ordinary robe, with his hands politely clasped inside the sleeves. Hence, the work expressly represents Sim Deukgyeong as a true cheosa, a literatus who has chosen to withdraw from the world in order to dedicate himself to scholarship and self-cultivation.
Given that he spent four months painting this portrait, Yun Du-seo clearly sought to go beyond merely replicating his friend’s appearance from memory. After completing the portrait on November, Yun sent it to the house of Sim Deukgyeong’s family. The family’s reaction is vividly documented in History of Cheongjuk Paintings (聽竹畵史) by Nam Taeeung. According to that text, “The portrait was so faithful—down to a single hair on Sim’s head—that when it was hung on the wall, all of the family members were shocked and reduced to tears, as if Sun Shuao (孫叔敖) had come back to life.” In describing this mournful scene, the record also compares Sim to a politician who was famously wise and just.
The painting is inscribed with three encomia, two of which were written by Sim’s friend Yi Seo. In the first inscription, Yi Seo details his friend’s appearance and personality:
With his excellent build, elegant demeanor, and his calm, just character, he is pure in both heart and mind; he is as clear as jade, and as cold as ice. He is benevolent, humble, impartial, and vivid. His face is long and distinct, with a bright, fragrant complexion. Innocent eyes, a straight nose, with red lips and even teeth. His ears are relaxed and his beard is neat, with faint sideburns and elegant eyebrows. His behavior is correct and polite, and his voice is smooth and graceful. Looking at this portrait of him as a proper scholar, I feel that he is full of life, as if I am looking right at him and hearing his voice. Without seeing your appearance, who can know your personality and heart? And without seeing your heart, who can know your virtue?
形端骨秀, 質淡氣淨, 心純神粹, 玉潔氷㓏. 仁厚謙愼, 公直光明. 面方而脩, 色晢而馨. 目淡鼻端, 唇赤齒精. 耳凉鬢疎, 眉端鬚淸. 端恭其儀, 淸汗其聲. 遺像儼然, 宛如其生, 彷彿其見, 怳惚其聽. 嗚呼, 匪子之氣像, 孰知子之德之誠.
In the second encomium, Yi Seo further expounds on Sim Deukgyeong’s character and personality, as if supplementing the elements that are difficult to capture in a painting.
A pristine heart, like the moon over water, and a virtuous mind, as cold and clear as ice. Since he loved asking questions and working hard, he perpetually improved his enlightenment and cultivation. Now that you have left me, my sadness has no bounds.
水月其心, 氷玉其德, 好問力踐, 確乎其得. 惟子之吾, 喪道之極.
Yun Du-seo also wrote that he painted this portrait by solemnly coordinating his mournful thoughts to commemorate Sim Deukgyeong, his absent friend:
This portrait was completed in November of the thirty-sixth year of the reign of King Sukjong (1710), four months after Sim Deukgyeong passed away. Purifying his body and mind, Yun Du-seo painted it in Haenam, with a full heart.
維王三十六年庚寅十一月寫, 時公歿後第四月也. 海南尹斗緖謹齋心寫.
In an epitaph written in 1717, Yun Heungseo (the elder brother of Yun Du-seo) evinces Sim Deukgyeong as an ideal Joseon scholar, possessing a sharp and redolent mind:
Sim Deukgyeong has a beautiful demeanor, with a tranquil mind that is forever free from greed. He is faultless, like the autumn moon reflected on a cold pond; like lotus flowers blooming in a muddy pond, he remains fragrant without being sullied by dirt.
These inscriptions confirm that Yun Du-seo was a literati painter with sharp insights and intuition. In this portrait, he aimed to capture both the unique mix of universal and individual qualities that characterized Sim Deukgyeong. To this end, Yun meticulously visualized his deceased friend, hoping to give Sim’s loved ones the illusion that they were seeing him again in person, thus arousing their deep sentiments.
Portrait of Sim Deukgyeong is an exemplary work that demonstrates how a gifted artist can capture a person’s spirit in a portrait. This is especially true when the artist and sitter have a special friendship, like that shared by Yun Du-seo and Sim Deukgyeong. Above all, this outstanding painting reminds us that the ultimate goal of a portrait is to embody the subject’s mind, transcending the duplication of external likeness to evince one’s internal essence.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website.