The establishment of the Joseon (“Fresh Dawn”) dynasty in 1392, following a revolutionary yet bloodless coup, purged the corrupt practices of the Goryeo regime, ended Mongol domination, and fueled an extraordinary cultural renaissance. The new political vision of the state promoted Neo-Confucianism in both theoretical explorations and practical implementation in nearly every aspect of society. Buddhism, the state-sanctioned religion for more than a thousand years, was officially rejected, though private worship and artistic production continued. The Neo-Confucian royal court and elite literati (yangban), the primary patrons of the arts, embraced and encouraged the advancement of secular art and culture. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed the revival and reinterpretation of classical traditions alongside significant achievements in innovative art forms. Under King Sejong (r. 1418–50), who was the embodiment of a renaissance monarch, a unique, phonetic alphabet (hangeul) was created, permitting an accurate transcription of the native language and the wide dissemination of Confucian texts and mores.
Neo-Confucianism, the dominant political ideology of early Joseon society, dictated many aspects of life, including education, familial and social relations, and production of the visual arts. Artists in the court’s Bureau of Painting created works advancing Neo-Confucian ideals: for example, portraits of “meritorious subjects”—political figures who served the goals of the state and the monarch—or painted records of men in government, particularly the Confucian literati. White porcelain was the dominant form of ceramics in this period. Its appeal for the Joseon elite lay in its aesthetic of purity and restrained elegance, which resonated with the ideals of Neo-Confucian teachings.
One significant body of landscape painting from the early Joseon period comprises works illustrating scenery or places in China of literary fame and with nostalgic associations—for example, the Xiao and Xiang rivers in the modern province of Hunan, a region historically identified with exile and lament. Though known and adapted during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), the theme reached a new height of popularity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with most extant paintings dating to the latter. Meanwhile, in contemporary Ming-dynasty China, the number and reputation of paintings on this subject dwindled, compared to the earlier Song period. The early Joseon scrolls and screens illustrating the Eight Views represent Korean transformations of this classic theme and of landscapes more broadly.
Many landscapes from this period, chief among them the Eight Views, are painted in the An Gyeon style—coined after the most celebrated and influential landscapist of the early Joseon, who was active around the mid-fifteenth century. The formidable legacy of An Gyeon also reveals a deeper layer of homage to the classical past, to the Northern Song landscapist par excellence, Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090). Some notable features of the An Gyeon style include the cloudlike mountain forms and the pine trees; the dramatic interpenetration of solids and voids; the effective contrast between light and dark ink tones; and the powerful command of brushstrokes and modeling ink washes.
Paintings depicting reunions of government officials current and retired, as well as gatherings of newly minted officials—those who had just passed the entrance examination for civil or military service and were about to embark on government careers—make up a unique and vibrant genre within early Joseon paintings. They also attest to the value placed on proper Neo-Confucian education and literary fluency as keys to social advancement in early Joseon society. A copy of the visual record was usually made for each participant to take home as a keepsake, though some paintings appear to have been made as singular works.
A phenomenon peculiar to the early Joseon period was the emergence of artists directly descended from the royal family. Distinguished artists of royal pedigree include Yi Am (1507–1566) and Yi Jeong (1541–1622), both great-great-grandsons of King Sejong; Yi Gyeong-yun (1545–1611), a great-grandnephew of Yi Seong-gun, the ninth son of King Seongjong; and Yi Jing (1581–after 1645), an illegitimate son of Yi Gyeong-yun. These men did not form an organized group, nor did they share a particular genre or style of painting. Indeed, each made a unique contribution to the arts of the period. The works by Yi Jeong and Yi Jing offer a coda to the development of painting in the early Joseon.
Ceramics in the early Joseon were ubiquitous, whether as vessels for everyday life or for special purposes, such as burial or Confucian rites. Buncheong ware and porcelain emerged as two main genres.
Buncheong ware, a distinctive kind of stoneware produced only in the first 200 years of the Joseon dynasty, eventually became the ceramics for the masses, but was initially used by royalty and the upper and middle classes, including as ceremonial vessels for burial. Buncheong evolved from the inlaid celadon of the fourteenth century (during the Goryeo dynasty), and regional kilns were required to present their best products to the central government. With the introduction of porcelain, buncheong’s consumer base spread to nearly all social classes.
Porcelain was initially a highly restricted and coveted luxury item. Spurred by Chinese imports and know-how, kilns devoted to manufacturing the highest quality white and cobalt-decorated porcelain by and for the court (known as bunwon kilns) were established near the capital around 1460. By the sixteenth century, the demand for porcelain became widespread, and regional kilns produced porcelain for local consumption. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, alongside China and the Islamic world, Korea was a participant in an international revolution in ceramics—the rise and dominance of porcelain—which would later spread to Japan and Europe. Whereas porcelain from these other parts of the world was actively traded, Joseon porcelain, throughout the 500 years of the dynasty, was made essentially for the domestic market.
One of the central tenets of the Joseon dynasty was the strict authority of Neo-Confucian ideology coupled with the aggressive rejection of Buddhism. Nonetheless, the exceptionally high quality of Buddhist art demonstrates that Buddhism remained an enduring part of the culture. In private, many monarchs either followed Buddhist practices themselves or tolerated them among their family and court advisors. Members of the royal court commissioned important Buddhist art both for private devotion and public dissemination of the faith.
King Sejong, like his older brother, Hyoryeong, sponsored Buddhist projects; Sejong underwrote the restoration of the Heungcheon Temple and the printing of a number of significant Buddhist texts. In his late years, he became a devout Buddhist, perhaps as a way to find peace in the face of his children’s illnesses and his own failing health. A number of other prominent members of the royal family, especially women, were active patrons of Buddhist art and other projects. The dowager queen Munjeong (died 1565) was perhaps the most influential supporter of Buddhism. Indeed, she lifted the official ban on Buddhist worship and instigated an impressive resurgence of Buddhist art production.