Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Mountain and Water: Korean Landscape Painting, 1400–1800

In pre-modern European painting, the human figure, whether mythical, religious, or historical, plays a starring role. In traditional East Asian art, landscape is the preferred and revered mode of painting. Landscape painting represents both a portrayal of nature itself and a codified illustration of the human view of nature and the world. Within the powerful, awe-inspiring landscape, the human figure appears in diminutive form, or not at all. Korea possesses a long tradition of landscape painting, tracing back to the tomb murals of the Goguryeo kingdom (37 B.C.–668 A.D.). The majority of extant works, however, date to the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). This coincides with a period of great maturation of landscape painting, in style and theoretical paradigms.

The single most important landscape painter of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the court artist An Gyeon (active ca. 1440–70). Taking inspiration from the idiom of Northern Song artist Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), An created a distinctive style of landscape painting that shaped the direction of that genre during the early Joseon period. His most famous work, Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land, is a tour-de-force of dynamic brushwork and luminous imagery. Painted in 1447 at the behest of his patron, Prince Anpyeong, the handscroll depicts a dream, as elucidated by the prince in his colophon to the painting, wherein he was transported to the Peach Blossom Land, a utopian world described in a fable by the Chinese recluse poet Tao Qian (Tao Yuanming, 365–427). This Peach Blossom Land, enclosed by a magnificent landscape, is portrayed in the right half of the scroll. An elegant and stirring painting, An’s masterpiece is important on many levels. As a close collaboration between patron and artist, the painting affirms both the authority of Prince Anpyeong, a powerful supporter of the arts, and the transformative skills of An Gyeon. The handscroll also attests to the deep knowledge of and appreciation for literary and artistic traditions, especially Chinese, shared by a broad spectrum of the cultural elite of the period. At the same time, it unequivocally reveals An’s extraordinary personal style, one that would serve as a model for generations of landscape painters.

Landscape painting in the style of An Gyeon—featuring prominent mountains looming in the background over idyllic scenes of trees, small hills, and water (sometimes with evidence of human presence, such as boats or architecture)—flourished through the fifteenth, sixteenth, and even into the seventeenth century. A popular theme within this genre was the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers. Beyond the borders of Joseon Korea, the An Gyeon style of landscape painting had a visible effect on ink painters of the Muromachi period (1392–1573) in Japan, notably the great master Tenshō Shūbun.

Some of the representative landscape painters of the seventeenth century include Yi Jing (1581–after 1645), Yi Gyeong-yun (1545–1611), and Kim Myeongguk (1600–after 1662). The latter, as celebrated for his Seon (Zen) figure paintings as for his landscapes, also gained fame in Japan, to which he twice accompanied the Joseon embassy. These artists’ approach to stylistic precedents—both Chinese and Korean—was more flexible than that of their predecessors. The seventeenth century also witnessed the rise in popularity of the Zhe school style, adopted from Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) China. Also during this time, landscapes based on Chinese Southern School painting became widely practiced. This style would persist into the eighteenth century as a dominant trend.

Perhaps the most ground-breaking and significant development to occur in landscape painting of the eighteenth century is the so-called “true-view landscape painting” (jingyeong sansuhwa). To scholars of the time, this term encompassed scenery that, while true to actual Korean landscapes, was also the most exemplary and most ideal in the country—such as that of Mount Geumgang (Diamond Mountain). Today the term signifies landscape painting that expresses both the actual topography of a famous site in Korea and the layers of psychological and art-historical meanings embedded in the scenery. Much of landscape painting before the eighteenth century depicted either famous scenery in China or generic images of nature as imagined by the artist—in both cases, often following well-established literary or pictorial precedents.

The preeminent artist Jeong Seon (1676–1759) is credited as the father of true-view landscape painting and, therefore, with the “Koreanization” of Joseon painting. Paintings of native sites did exist in Korea prior to the eighteenth century; yet, undeniably, it is in Jeong’s splendid paintings of famous sites that the concept and style of true-view painting reached its full potential. His numerous illustrations of Mount Geumgang (located in present-day North Korea) impress the viewer with the grand scale of nature portrayed in painted imagery. They are breathtaking in how accurately and poignantly they convey the physical features and the emotional resonance of the majestic scenery. No less inspiring is his painting of the smaller mountain range, Mount Inwang (in Seoul): its cropped composition and bold, sweeping brushwork beautifully capture the moment the mountain emerges from the mist just after the rain.

Late Joseon landscape painters contemporary with or following Jeong Seon would continue, expand, or diverge from the precedent set by him. Two of the most eminent artists of the late eighteenth century are Gang Sehwang (1713–1791) and Yi Inmun (1745–1821). Gang, a noted art critic as well as painter, incorporated in his works a wide range of historical and contemporary influences. Prominent among those influences were Western painting techniques—available to Korean artists through China—such as the effects of transparent color, like watercolor, and the technique of shading. While Gang painted a number of famous sites around Korea, the court painter Yi Inmun often illustrated nonspecific and even imaginative landscape, as demonstrated by his masterpiece, Streams and Mountains without End. A grand vision of the ever-changing aspects of nature, this scroll’s panoramic scale makes it one of the most celebrated landscape paintings in Korea.