As in the Portrait of a Scholar by Chae Yongsin (2012.329), the subject here—a young woman wearing a traditional Korean dress (hanbok) comprising a short jacket over a floor-length skirt—appears in front of a folding screen atop a patterned straw mat, though she sits on a chair in three-quarter view. Floral motifs abound, highlighting the decorative quality of the painting: flanked by potted plants and a vase with floral decoration, the sitter holds a spray of peonies; the blue tablecloth is dotted with small flowers; and the background screen, faintly painted in monochrome ink, shows flowering trees rather than a landscape, the more standard backdrop for portraits of this time. Curiously, greater care and visual emphasis have been placed on the setting and objects—note, for example, the gold-painted planter—than on the sitter.
There are very few extant portraits of women in Korean painting prior to the twentieth century. The Confucian belief in strict separation of the sexes and in female modesty deemed inappropriate the practice of a woman sitting for a male artist. This representation of an unmarried woman (as indicated by her long, braided hairstyle) is unusual in that it is neither allegorical nor part of a husband-and-wife double portrait. Purchased in 1943, this painting was recently cleaned and is displayed here for the first time.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Portraits in Korean Painting," December 6, 2012–June 9, 2013.