Kim Hongdo’s Sandalwood Garden: A Self-Image of a Late-Chosŏn Court Painter
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Kim Hongdo’s Sandalwood Garden: A Self-Image of a Late-Chosŏn Court Painter

Throughout Korea’s Chosŏn period (1392–1910), court painters were the major producers of pictures for both the court and private patrons.1 As government employees, Chosŏn court painters mostly worked on court and other public projects, such as the production of portraits, decorative screens used for various events, and documentary paintings. On private commissions, too, the subject and format of the paintings were usually determined by the patron. Expression of feeling or of personality, long considered the essence of scholar-painting in East Asian culture, was rarely the primary object or incentive of court painters. On the other hand, it was expected of an outstanding court painter that his personality (or the myth of personality) be naturally reflected in his brushwork; it certainly helped a court painter to attract more private patrons.

Sandalwood Garden (Tanwŏn-do) (Fig. 1), the subject of his essay, was done by the Late Chosŏn court painter Kim Hongdo (1745–after 1806) in 1784. To modern Koreans Kim Hongdo is probably the best-known premodern painter. He has long been loved and admired as a great artist whose work embodies an essential “Korean-ness.”2 Born into an obscure family, Kim Hongdo entered the Royal Bureau of Painting (tohwasŏ) in his youth. His exceptional painting skill, soon acknowledged, led to a lifelong success as a professional career.3 He was also a well-regarded poet and calligrapher, and especially proficient in music. Late Chosŏn patrons increasingly sought out artists who, by elaborating on artistic subjects at their gatherings, might reflect elegance on their hosts.4 Kim Hongdo was certainly one such cultivated artist. Patrons not only commissioned him to paint, but also invited him to their private gatherings and parties; there he would be asked to paint “on the spot” for the delectation of the other guests.5

Sandalwood Garden, which depicts a small gathering of friends held in the artist’s own house, has been read to signify the humble but cultured lifestyle of the artist and his circle. This interpretation, based on the artist’s image as free and romantic, modest and cultured, an image constructed from the somewhat conventional compliments of his peers, has been accepted and embellished by modern biographers, often making for a yet further idealization of the artist.6 What such a reading overlooks are questions regarding the artist’s particular interests and concerns in producing the painting. What motivated him to paint this scroll and present it to his friend? Why did he choose the gathering at his house as the subject of the painting? As in every commemorative work, such interests and concerns are closely connected to the social framework in which the painting was produced.

Unlike his commissioned works, this painting was planned by the artist himself, who decided on subject, format, and style, with the recipient, whom he also chose, in mind. The very subject of the painting, Tanwŏn, or Sandalwood Garden, provides a clue to the artist’s intentions. It was the name of Kim Hongdo’s residence in Seoul, but any Korean reader will also recognize the word as the artist’s sobriquet (K: ho; C: hao). For this reason, the original title of the painting, Tanwŏn-do 檀園圖 (“Picture of Sandalwood Garden”), can be interpreted as “a picture of the garden,” or as a portrait of Tanwŏn, the artist. Or, of course, as both. At least until Kim Hongdo’s time, virtually no Chosŏn court painters produced a work whose title was patently so self-oriented and self-representing.

The following analysis of Sandalwood Garden asks what motivated the artist to produce this painting and what affected his selection of its main theme and its mode of representation. I consider that this process was closely related to the artist’s marginal social status as a painter and his changed social role at the particular time of the painting’s production, which I believe promised him an elevation of his social position, even if only briefly. In this sense, the discussion will also serve as a case...