Album of Genre Paintings by Danwon, Kim Hong-do


 Album of Genre Paintings by Danwon, Kim Hong-do



It is hard to find a Joseon Dynasty painting that shows realistic expressions of emotion. The elite class that enjoyed paintings, the literati, refrained from showing the joys or sorrows of life on their faces. They aspired to always remain calm in spirit and unshaken by external circumstances, believing any display of trifling emotion to be crude.


This attitude was reflected in the people portrayed in paintings. In most portraits the faces are solemn and dignified. People wanted to present a special image rather than an everyday look, so it is rare to see a person laughing or crying in Korean paintings. From when did paintings begin to feature ordinary people freely showing their emotions? This change began to appear in the Joseon Dynasty in the 18th century. Although there are few examples from before this time, generally the trend for naturally depicting emotion is considered to have started in the late Joseon Dynasty, especially with the genre paintings of Kim Hong-do (弘道 1745-1806; penname: Danwon).



Let’s take a look at one of his major works, Seodang (Village School), one of 25 paintings in Danwon-pungsok-hwacheop (Album of Danwon’s Genre Paintings). The eyes first go to the little boy cowering down and crying pitifully. From the cane on the teacher’s desk and the way the boy is grabbing the ties at his ankles, it appears the boy is about to roll up his trouser legs to be caned on the calves. The teacher, looking at the boy whose back is turned to him, betrays signs of pity but his attitude is stern, showing a resolve to carry out the punishment for the boy’s own good.


Seeing the familiar looking faces depicted with a blunt brush, it is as if one were sitting in a corner of the classroom. One can almost hear the classmates snickering. The boys sitting on the left side are trying to hold their laughter in, but the group of children on the right side is laughing out loud, mouths wide open. Despite the depiction of the whimpering boy, the painting exudes warmth; it seems the teacher will lose his anger and relent at any moment. Fellow painter Kang Se-hwang (姜世晃 1713-1791) said of Kim: “He was great at depicting the hundreds, the thousands of incidents and customs of daily life, and when he started painting the road over there and the ferry landing over there, the shop and the outdoor stall, the official exam sites and the outdoor mask-dance theaters, all the people would start to clap and exclaim in wonder. This praise came from approval of the way Kim painted not the noble or the rich but the ordinary people that one meets everywhere in day to day life.”





Jumak (The Inn) is another interesting painting in the album. A wayfarer is eating with relish. From the way he is leaning forward and tilting the bowl toward him, one can guess that he is very hungry. Having almost finished his meal, there is a look of contentment on his face. The serving woman ladling soup, looking at the guest’s purse and looking after her whining child is the very picture of the busyness of daily life.

It is possible to imagine stories from Kim Hong-do’s paintings because of the varied expressions on the people’s faces. More conventional faces would limit our imagination.


Kim’s paintings take us beyond time and space and make us feel as if we were right in the middle of the picture. If this is the case today, how popular would Kim’s works have been in his day? Fellow painter Kang Se-hwang said: “So many people wanted one of Kim’s paintings that they crowded his doorway, bringing piles of silk, and making him so busy that he didn’t have time to eat or sleep.”

This craze for genre paintings extended even to King Jeongjo, who in the state examination for royal painters commanded the examinees to produce a genre painting, saying, “Paint something that will make people laugh as soon as they see it.”

Kim Hong-do’s genre paintings thus reveal the eye of an artist skilled at picking out the major scenes from everyday life, the ability to arouse emotions and sympathy regardless of social class and period, and faces showing true, candid expressions that reflect real life.




Album of Genre Paintings by Danwon, Kim Hong-do

Location: Painting Gallery at the Calligraphy and Painting section (2nd Floor)

Artist: Kim Hong-do (1745 – after 1806)

Period/Date: Joseon, 18th century

Accession no. Bongwan 6504

Treasure no. 527


* This article is extracted from the NMK Magazine Vol.05


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