Plum Branch

Artist: Yi Yuwon (Korean, 1814–1888)

Period: Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)

Date: dated 1888

Culture: Korea

Medium: Hanging scroll; ink on paper

Dimensions: 58 1/16 x 37 3/16 in. (147.5 x 94.5 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, Seymour and Rogers Funds and Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 1990

Accession Number: 1990.230


A distinguished scholar-official who served as prime minister in 1873 under Emperor Gojong (r. 1864–1907), Yi Yuwon was also a recognized painter, poet, and calligrapher.

Delicate plum blossoms, budding in the chill, dot the long swerving branch and its thin offshoots; behind, a second, smaller branch echoes its lines. The calligraphic and impressionistic style of this painting renders the subject both representational and abstract. Plum blossoms were originally associated with spring, while bamboo, chrysanthemums, and orchids represented summer, autumn, and winter, respectively. By the nineteenth century, this quartet of plants became firmly established as the Four Gentlemen (Korean: sagunja), a cherished symbol of the virtuous Confucian scholar and a popular theme in literati painting. Such associations were a shared theme throughout East Asia.