Genre is a French word meaning “kind” or “variety” and, starting from the late eighteenth century, French writers used the phrase “genre painting” to describe illustrations of everyday life, in contrast to history painting. Similarly, in Korean art, genre painting refers to pictures of people’s daily activities. Korean genre paintings, particularly from the eighteenth century, are esteemed for their candid, realistic representations of Joseon society (1392–1910) and are considered by many as among the most “Korean” of all Korean art forms. Genre paintings existed in Korea prior to the eighteenth century; these works, however, were generally idealized images of yangban (literati; ruling elite) life. In the eighteenth century, the subject matter shifted away from the yangban to the commoner. Interestingly, literati artists from the upper class were the first to bring attention to the activities of the non-elite and, as a result, were catalysts for this shift.
While the involvement of the literati, both as artists and patrons, was integral to the development of Korean genre painting, it was the professional court painters of the late eighteenth century who saw to the maturation of genre paintings in form and content. Kim Hongdo (1745–ca. 1806; sobriquet Danwon), a court painter from the jung-in (“middle people”) class, is most credited for this florescence. Kim was a leading artist of the time and a favorite of kings Yeongjo (r. 1724–76) and Jeongjo (r. 1776–1800) because of his talent and versatility—he painted landscapes, Buddhist and Daoist themes, portraits, and scholar accoutrements, as well as flowers and animals. The works for which he is best known today are the genre images of work and leisure in Genre Paintings by Danwon, an album of twenty-five leaves in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul. The most enchanting features of Kim Hongdo’s paintings are the humor and liveliness of the scenes he depicts and their forceful narrative quality. The album focuses on the lives of ordinary men and women engaged in various activities. The activities are portrayed in different ways, with some placed in a landscape setting and others on blank backgrounds. Regardless of the setting, all the paintings depict skillfully arranged figures within a coherent compositional scheme that creates a sense of space and depth. The expression-filled faces of the figures invite the viewer to take a closer look. Rather than static or repeated figures, Kim Hongdo pays special attention to each individual, providing him or her with a specific countenance and emotion. Gang Sehwang (1713–1791), a celebrated artist and critic of the eighteenth century, noted of Kim Hongdo’s genre paintings, “all the activities of people’s daily lives, street scenes, ferry crossings, stores, scenes of civil examinations … those who witnessed his work could not fail to cry out and clap in wonder at each brushstroke.”
Another artist whose work is synonymous with genre painting is Sin Yunbok (ca. 1758–after 1813; sobriquet Hyewon). Yet, the subject matter of Sin Yunbok’s paintings is entirely different from those of Kim Hongdo. While Kim was known for portraying the lives of the everyday man, Sin Yunbok became famous for his illustrations of yangban leisure activities, especially those involving gisaeng (courtesans). Double-Sword Dance, from the album Genre Paintings by Hyewon, plainly reveals this world of leisure. Scene from a Dano Day more explicitly conveys the sensuality often associated with Sin Yunbok’s paintings. With the exposure of breasts and legs in the depiction of the bathing gisaeng, Scene from a Dano Day is arguably Sin’s most risqué painting. The voyeuristic situation in which the half-naked gisaeng are placed further sexualizes the image. When placed within the context of the Confucian Joseon society, this overt eroticism, also seen in his paintings of amorous couples, makes Sin’s images daring and unconventional. The chastity of women and self-restraint of men were two tenets of Confucian living. In contrast, sexual explicitness and excessive participation in leisure activities were believed to lead to moral corruption. Are these paintings, surprising in their unambiguous imagery, commentaries on the yangban lifestyle and mores?
Kim Deuksin (1754–1822; sobriquet Geungjae) was one of numerous artists who were influenced by the genre paintings of Kim Hongdo and Sin Yunbok and continued the tradition. Kim Deuksin was not wanting for any teachers, since he came from an illustrious family of artists: his father, uncles, and brothers were all painters. At the age of twenty, he became a member of the Dohwaseo (Bureau of Paintings) and later received the impressive rank of painter-in-waiting. He was also selected, along with other court painters, one of which was Kim Hongdo, to paint the royal portrait of King Jeongjo. Chasing a Cat, from the album Genre Paintings by Geungjae, displays the influence of Kim Hongdo in his choice of comical situation: a middle-aged couple of the lower class chasing a cat that has stolen a chick. Yet, like Sin Yunbok’s paintings, Chasing a Cat contains an articulated setting. Kim Deuksin is thought to have brought a more naturalistic mode of genre imagery and to have portrayed the daily lives of commoners with even greater authenticity.
The flourishing of genre paintings and the growing interest in the work and leisure activities of common people in the eighteenth century reflect the changing sociopolitical climate of the second half of the Joseon dynasty. A turning point in the Korean people’s perception of their own culture and that of their neighboring countries came with the fall of China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Historically, China and Korea had always had very close political and cultural ties. With the Manchu conquest of China, Joseon officials and scholars began to question China’s role as the leader and center of civilization and to embark on explorations of things native to Korea. New schools of thought emerged. In philosophy, silhak (the Practical Learning School) called for the reexamination of land distribution policies, class differences, and the economy. The flourishing of cultural activity was not limited to the yangban, but also occurred in the lower classes. There was an increase in vernacular writing in hangeul (Korean alphabet) throughout the different classes of society. Genre painting and paintings depicting famous sites in Korea, known as jingyeong (“true-view”) landscape painting, experienced unprecedented popularity. These two painting types are frequently cited as evidence of the increasing emphasis on the development of a Korean cultural identity and are among the most celebrated artistic achievements of the late Joseon dynasty.