Korean Chaekgeori Paintings

See works of art
  • Tripod Cauldron (Ding)
  • Three-Legged Vessel of Archaistic Design
  • Panel Featuring Vessels from the Hundred Antiques Theme
  • Jar with Floral Scrolls and Wrapped-Cloth Design
  • Table Valance with Theme of the Hundred Antiques
  • Beaker of Archaistic Design
  • Teapot with Pattern of the Hundred Antiques
  • Books and Scholars Possessions

Works of Art (9)


Chaekgeori is a still-life painting genre that emerged in late eighteenth-century Joseon Korea. Books are the primary and most important motif in such paintings, evident from their prominent placement, abundance, and the name chaekgeori, which means “books and things” or “books and the materials for them.” Chaekgeori paintings were made through the modern period and continue to inspire contemporary artists. The Museum’s ten-panel chaekgeori screen (2005.385) is a wonderful example of the continuation and transformation of such works in the early twentieth century. It illustrates an array of objects typical of the genre, including books, bronzes, ceramics, fruits, flowers, and writing implements.

Based on the manner of composition chaekgeori paintings are categorized into three types: bookcase, isolated, and stacked. The first type, as the name suggests, portrays a bookcase filled with objects. Due to the prominence of the bookcase, this type is also referred to as a chaekkado (literally, “bookshelf painting”). The painted image extends continuously across all the panels, resulting in a unified depiction of a bookcase over the entire surface of the screen. Isolated chaekgeori paintings depict objects against an empty backdrop. Unlike bookcase chaekgeori, each panel of the isolated type has a discrete composition. The objects can appear to be floating because of the unpainted background. The Museum’s screen is a stacked chaekgeori. Each panel comprises a distinct frame, but unlike in the isolated type, the objects are neatly stacked rather than dispersed. Sets of books with colorful coverings are piled three or four high and at various angles. Vases with cut flowers, plates of fruit, and vessels containing rolled paper and brushes are placed alongside and on top of the bookstacks, tables, and shelves.

Chaekgeori represents the advent of still-life painting in Korea. Recovering from the turbulent invasions of the Japanese and the Manchus in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Joseon dynasty experienced a period of political stability and socioeconomic prosperity during the eighteenth century, a time that modern scholars consider its golden age. Within this environment, art production flourished. Subject matter expanded to encompass not only the Confucian and literary ideals of earlier Joseon painting but real and contemporaneous themes. The ideal and historical resided alongside true-view landscapes (jingyeong sansuhwa) and genre paintings (pungsokhwa). While these modes introduced new types of subject matter within the established genres of landscape and figure painting, chaekgeori emerged during this time as an entirely new genre.

Joseon’s diplomatic and economic ties to neighboring Qing China (1644–1911) and Edo Japan (1615–1868) were key factors in the new artistic developments. Many of the objects depicted in the Museum’s chaekgeori screen were originally produced outside of Joseon and reflect the cross-cultural interactions of the period. Viewing the screen in the traditional sequence from right to left, the three-legged ewers in panels 1 and 2 depict ceramic wares that were produced in China. The tripod green vessels (panels 3 and 4) represent Qing bronze incense burners and their red-lacquered covers. The mirror, clock, and watch (panels 1, 7, and 10) are all examples of Western objects brought to East Asia via Jesuit missionaries and Western merchants. The citron fruits (panels 9 and 10), corals (panels 7 and 10), and peacock feathers (panel 3) are items that are not indigenous to the Korean peninsula. With the frequent envoy visits to the capitals of Qing and Edo (modern-day Beijing and Tokyo), Joseon officials and their ambassadorial entourages, which included court painters and artisans, had the opportunity to see and acquire various Chinese, Japanese, and Western wares depicted in chaekgeori paintings. The diplomatic missions and increased global trade sparked an interest in exotic goods and fostered a culture of curiosity and commodities.

In addition to illustrating the appeal of new and foreign items in Joseon society, chaekgeori paintings represents three significant aesthetic trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: illusionism; antiquarianism and empiricism; and auspicious symbolism. The two ceramic ewers (panels 1 and 2) have illusionistic decorative characteristics. Their three-legged round body mimics the form of bronze tripod vessels (panels 3 and 4), but the handle and spout are modeled to look like tree branches. The handle’s branchlike illusion is reinforced by the manner in which the floral motif on the surface of the ewer is painted to look as if it were an extension of the branch handle. Another example of this type of pictorial illusionism is the small ceramic vessel on the stack of books in the far left panel. The vaselike vessel looks to have a textile tied around its neck. Tying textiles around ceramic vessels for added embellishment was a common decorative practice in both late Qing and Joseon. Qing artisans emulated this practice and incorporated it in the surface decoration of enamels, as seen in a pair of jars decorated with floral scrolls and a wrapped cloth (14.40.161a,b).

In Joseon art, this visual play with illusionism is most effectively illustrated in the bookcase-type chaekgeori, which incorporates Western linear perspective and shading techniques. The orthogonal lines of the shelves and the dark shading contribute to the illusion of recessed space. From eighteenth-century archival records and extant bookcase chaekgeori dating to the early nineteenth century, modern scholars contend that the bookcase chaekgeori is the earliest of the three types, and that it originated at the court. The form of the shelf and the displayed objects in bookcase chaekgeori reveal the influence of Qing display culture, especially the décor trend of duobaoge popularized by Qing imperial interiors. Duobaoge (literally, “shelf of many treasures”) were treasure cabinets that consisted of tiered and offset shelving that ranged in size and shape to display a variety of collectibles. Joseon court painters on ambassadorial missions would have seen duobaoge and their objects during their visits to Qing imperial halls and elite homes. While the shelving in bookcase chaekgeori is more symmetrical and systematic than duobaoge, the depicted bookcase echoes duobaoge characteristics in its tiered shelving and asymmetrical compartments. Duobaoge and bookcase chaekgeori, similar to the Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer in Europe, illustrate the surging interest in collecting and display in both Qing and Joseon.

In conjunction with global activity, a growing emphasis on empiricism and antiquarianism fostered a collecting culture. A faction of Joseon scholars and officials in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries sought out different methods of inquiry that countered the metaphysical approach to Neo-Confucianism. This new school of thought was called silhak (literally, “practical learning”). Silhak scholars were not only drawn to Western learning but also promoted reexamination of the past through the study of classical texts, epigraphy, and antiques. The objects depicted in chaekgeori, as well as the painting style of illusionistic chaekgeori, reflect the period’s intellectual and philosophical developments. Clocks, mirrors, watches, and eyeglasses are often illustrated in chaekgeori, and these objects all represent newly introduced Western technologies. The bronze vessels are contemporary Qing wares deliberately produced in archaic shapes, such as ding tripod vessels (09.118.11; 2001.210) and gu beakers (14.58.175). The landscape paintings, blue-and-white ceramics, brushes, paper, inkstones, and seals are all related to literati pursuits and the yangban lifestyle.

The growing penchant for commodities and collecting during the late Joseon period is also evident in the use of images of objects as decorative motifs. The Chinese ornamental motif called “hundred antiques” emerged during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Composed of bronze vessels, ceramics vases holding flowers, and brushes in containers, the motif is pervasive on Qing ceramics (24.80.483a,b), textiles (30.75.15), and decorative panels (29.110.93), and it is likely that such works inspired the creation of the isolated type of chaekgeori. Though there are similarities between Qing “hundred antiques” and isolated chaekgeori, both in types of objects—depicted as discrete units floating on a blank background—and in pictorial style, there are also interesting differences. Books do not feature as prominently in “hundred antiques,” nor does it become a painting genre in China.

The importance of auspicious symbolism is evident in the flowers and fruits frequently depicted in chaekgoeri paintings. In the Museum’s chaekgeori screen, the watermelon (panel 1), pomegranates (panel 8), and reed musical instrument (panel 5) allude to fecundity. This insinuation is overt in the portrayal of the seeds within the fruit. The reed musical instrument, named sheng, works as a homophonic pun on the word sheng, which means “to give birth.” The flowers—peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, plum blossom, and narcissus—are rebuses with positive meanings of wealth, purity, longevity, perseverance, and prosperity, respectively. In case the symbolism of the objects is unclear, prosperity in terms of blessing and long life is more explicitly conveyed through the characters decorating a number of blue-and-white ceramic vessels in the screen. The characters bok (福, good fortune, Ch. fu, panels 1, 7, 9, and 10) and su (壽, longevity, Ch. shou, panels 1, 2, 8, and 9) plainly illustrate the symbolic sentiments that objects had come to represent and convey.

Based on surviving examples, stacked chaekgeori were made in the largest quantity, bookcase chaekgoeri in much fewer numbers. Examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries become increasingly more graphic and abstract. Concurrently, there is greater production of stacked and isolated chaekgeori depicting an increasing number of objects. This move away from illusionism seemingly indicates a paradigmatic shift in the manner in which viewers related to the screen images. Early bookcase chaekgeori were coveted for the objects that were admired and the illusionistic realism in which they were depicted. In later decades, the desire for the real wanes, and the symbolic and emblematic qualities of the objects intensifies and becomes central. The growing dominance of the metaphorical connotation of the objects is also apparent in the continuous popularity of chaekgeori, evident not only in the great number of so-called folk-style chaekgeori paintings, but also in the pairing of chaekgeori imagery with other auspicious illustrations such as munjado, rebus paintings of Chinese characters. The appeal of objects continued as new forms of still-life painting emerged, such as gimyeong jeoljido, in nineteenth-century Korea.

Eleanor Soo-ah Hyun
Department of Asia, The British Museum

December 2016


Hyun, Eleanor Soo-ah. “Korean Chaekgeori Paintings.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chae/hd_chae.htm (December 2016)

Further Reading

Black, Kay E., and Edward W. Wagner. “Ch’aekkŏri Paintings: A Korean Jigsaw Puzzle.” Archives of Asian Art 46 (1993), pp. 63–75.

Black, Kay E., and Edward W. Wagner. “Court Style Ch’aekkŏri.” In Hopes and Aspirations: Decorative Painting of Korea, pp. 23–35. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1998.

Pak, Youngsook. “Ch’aekkado—A Chosŏn Conundrum.” Art in Translation 5, no. 3 (2013), pp. 183–218.

Additional Essays by Eleanor Soo-ah Hyun