Portrait of Yi Chae

UnknownJoseon, 1892

National Museum of Korea

National Museum of Korea
Seoul, South Korea

Yi Chae (李采, 1745-1820, nickname “Gyeryang” 季亮) was a long-serving scholar-official who served under three different Joseon kings: King Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776), King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800), and King Sunjo (r. 1800-1834).

In this portrait, made when Yi Chae was 57 years old, his hands are reverently clasped in front of his body as he stares straight ahead. He is wearing a white scholar’s robe with dark trim and a scholar’s hat, made from horsehair. This type of hat was commonly known as a “Dongpo” hat, popularized by the Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi (蘇軾, 1037-1101, sobriquet Dongpo); however, in the painting’s inscription, Yi Chae refers to it as a “Cheng-zi Hat,” after Cheng Yi (程頤, 1033-1107). This style of white robe, with a black collar and trim, and secured with white belts with black borders, was the representative attire of Korean Confucian scholars. For a decorative flourish, the portrait also features an ornate sash of five vivid colors, tied over the bow of the white belt. In most Joseon portraits of scholar-officials, the subjects are depicted wearing their official government robes, but some chose to be represented in this style of robe, expressing their identity as Confucian scholars.Yi Chae’s grandfather was Yi Jae (李縡, 1680-1746, nickname “Doam” 陶菴), who was also a prominent Confucian scholar of Late Joseon. Playing a central role in the Noron (老論, “Old Learning”) faction, Yi Jae significantly influenced the politics and the ritual studies of his time. Portraits of Noron scholars often show them in their white scholar’s robes, symbolizing their succession in the Confucian learning tradition. By choosing to be similarly depicted in his white scholar’s robes, Yi Chae was signaling his own succession of the scholarly tradition of his grandfather. This ambition is confirmed by his inscription in which he humbly expresses his desire to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a Confucian scholar.In addition to Yi Chae’s self-commentary, transcribed by the famous calligrapher Yi Hanjin (李漢鎭, 1732-1815), the portrait bears two other inscriptions written by Yi Chae’s friends. East Asian paintings traditionally feature one or more inscriptions, intended to deliver the meaning of the work more clearly while enhancing the visual appeal of the painting. In this case, the writings provide more detail about Yi Chae’s life and personality, describing him as a man of clarity and integrity. The frontal view, which is rare in Joseon portraits, effectively delivers such personality.Yi Chae’s face, hair, beard, and hat are rendered in exceptionally fine detail. To create a transparent quality of the black horsehair hat, the individual strands were meticulously painted one by one over a base coat of darker black. Extra care was given to vividly capture the distinguishing facial features, such as his birthmarks, wrinkles, a small mole inside the ear, and a slight scar on the nose. The face is lightly outlined in brown, and numerous short strokes were used to depict the texture of the skin. Highlighting and shading were used on the nose and around the eyebrows, creating a clear sense of volume. The eyelids were first outlined with brown brush and then accentuated with black. The corners of the eyes are faintly colored with red, and the pupils are emphasized, transmitting the lucid spirit of Yi Chae.The face and clothes were enhanced through the technique of baechae or “reverse coloring,” an important technical feature of Joseon portraits wherein colors are applied to the backside of the painting. This method helps bond the color pigments to the front surface, while also contributing to the subtle transparency of the overall color. In this case, the backside of the clothes and face were lightly coated with white and pink paint, respectively.Unlike the detailed depiction of the face, the rendering of the clothing is quite simple and bold. The folds of the robe are stylistically expressed with long wavy lines. The extremely realistic, three-dimensional face and the flat, mannered body make for a compelling contrast, further accentuated by the three inscriptions written in different scripts. Together, these disparate elements convey a striking harmony, making this one of the quintessential portraits of the Joseon Dynasty.

This painting bears three inscriptions and four seals.First inscription (on the right): composed by Yi Chae, calligraphy by Yi Hanjin (李漢鎭, 1732-1815) in seal script, dated 1802.

彼冠程子冠, 衣文公深衣, 嶷然危坐者, 誰也歟.

Your hat is the type worn by Master Cheng (Cheng Yi 程頤, 1033-1107).

Your robe is the type worn by Master Zhu (Zhu Xi 朱熹, 1130-1200).

You are looking so eminent and dignified.

Who are you?

眉蒼而鬚白, 耳高而眼朗, 子眞是李季亮者歟.

Your eyebrows are dark and your beard is white.

Your ears are long and your eyes are bright.

Can this really be an image of the person called “Yi Gyerang” (Yi Chae’s nickname)?

考其迹則三縣五州, 問其業則四子六經. 無乃歟欺當世而竊虛名者歟.

Thinking about your career, you governed three counties and five provinces.

Examining your learning, you mastered Four Books and Six Classics (Confucian texts).

Did you not deceive your contemporaries and steal empty fame?

吁嗟乎. 歸爾祖之鄕, 讀爾祖之書. 則庶幾知其所樂, 而不愧爲程朱之徒也歟.

Alas, you return to your grandfather’s home and read your grandfather’s books.

Then you will learn the joy of life, and no longer be an unworthy follower of the Cheng-Zhu school.


Composed by “Old Man” Hwacheon (華泉, Yi Chae’s sobriquet), with calligraphy by “Old Man” Gyeongsan (京山, Yi Hanjin’s sobriquet) at the age of 71.

Second inscription (upper left corner): composed by “Old Man” Wongyo (圓嶠), calligraphy by Songwon (松園 金履度, Kim Ido, 1750-1813) in running and cursive script, dated 1807.

豈弟得乎爾性, 精粹著乎爾容.

Can I acquire your innate character?

Refinement and purity are evident in your appearance.

斂少日英發之氣, 加中歲經術之工.

In your youth, your spirit was bright and vital;

In middle age, you mastered the Confucian studies.

終日相對而未覺其厭, 終身與交而益見其篤.

Even when we spend the whole day talking, I never get tired of your company.

Through our lifelong friendship, I see more and more of your kindness.

外貌之淸和, 畫者能寫, 衷操之剛介, 其友能識.

The painter can capture your fine outer appearance,

[But only] your friends can recognize the firm integrity that lies within.

嘗拜陶菴先生遺像, 蓋知此精神之彷彿.

I have previously paid homage to the portrait of Master Doam (陶菴), Yi Jae (李縡, 1680-1746);

Now I know this portrait shares the same spiritual essence.

圓嶠老人贊, 松園丁卯書.

Composed by “Old Man” Wongyo, with calligraphy by Songwon in the year jeongmyo (1807)

Third inscription (left side, beneath the second inscription): Composed by Yu Hanjun (兪漢寯, 1732-1811), Calligraphy by Yu Hanji (兪漢芝, 1760-1834) in clerical script, dated 1803.

峩冠博帶, 宛周旋乎禮法之場, 皓髮魁儀 覿髣髴兮墅之容.

In a tall hat and broad sash, his attire conforms to propriety and custom.

With his white hair and eminent beard, he resembles a wanderer from the mountains and fields.

不自以爲高, 而高出於凡. 不自以爲淸, 而淸在其中.

He does not think of himself as lofty, but he towers over the mundane world.

He does not consider himself to be pure, but purity resides within him.

是蓋世類攸好也. 不可誣者, 有自之泉芝, 家訓所受也. 其爲學則相傳之箕弓.

People with such personality are well-liked.

[This personality] cannot be faked, because he has his own fragrance and he received the teaching of his family.

His learning has been transmitted through generations [of his family].

若是者, 吾不知誰歟. 其人其惟吾友五十九歲之華泉翁乎.

[How] can I not know who such person is?

This is just my friend, “Old Man”, Hwacheon who is now 59 years old.


Composed by “Old Man” Jeoam (著菴, Yu Hanjun’s sobriquet), at the age of 72, with

calligraphy by Giwon (綺園, Yu Hanji’s sobriquet).Four Seals:

Gyeongsan 京山 (square intaglio, after the first inscription): sobriquet of Yi Hanjin

Jungun 中雲 (square relief, after the first inscription): nickname of Yi Hanjin

Gi 綺 (square intaglio, after the third inscription): first character of “Giwon” (Yu Hanji’s sobriquet)

Won 園 (square intaglio, after the third inscription): second character of “Giwon” (Yu Hanji’s sobriquet)


  • Title: Portrait of Yi Chae
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: Joseon, 1892
  • Physical Dimensions: w58 x h99.6 cm
  • Original Title: 이채 초상
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: National Museum of Korea

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