Animals and Plants in Korean Traditional Paintings I: Plants and Insects

National Museum of Korea

Plants and Insects by Shin Saimdang, the leading female artist of the Joseon Dynasty

The best-known female artist of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910): Shin Saimdang (申師任堂, 1504-1551)
Shin Saimdang was especially known for her paintings of plants and insects, and several of those paintings have survived to this day. Flowers, birds, and animals were popular symbols in Korean traditional art, representing people’s wishes for wealth, success, long life, and many children.

The plant and insect paintings by Shin show plants, insects, and animals that were familiar from everyday life, such as beetles, grasshoppers, ants, moths, dragonflies, bees, and frogs. Also, Shin loved to paint the native plants and flowers of Korea, including fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, eggplants, and watermelons, as well as flowers such as cockscombs, balloon flowers, garden balsam flowers, daylilies, dianthus flowers, morning glories, and more. Most of the plant and insect paintings by Shin are in the form of folding screens or albums with eight to ten painted scenes. These paintings usually show many different types of plants and insects, living together in harmony. Can we find any familiar plants and animals in these paintings?

For example, let’s take a look at Watermelons and Field Mice, a painting filled with several plants and creatures that we can easily identify. In addition to the watermelons and field mice, the painting also shows dianthus flowers, a butterfly, and a moth. All of the beautiful plants and animals in this painting are traditional symbols, which have been used for centuries to represent people’s wishes for good fortune.

For example, plants that grow from vines—like grapes and watermelons—symbolize the wish for many children, who will thrive and grow like sprawling vines.

In this painting, one of the watermelons has been nibbled by the mice, exposing many seeds inside. Those seeds also represent the wish for abundant healthy children.

Meanwhile, the dark red dianthus flowers symbolize a person’s wish to have no white hairs, or to remain forever young.

Finally, butterflies have long been seen as symbols of pleasure and happiness, in both the East and the West.

Today, Shin is best remembered as the mother of the important scholar Yi I (李珥, 1536-1584), but during her own lifetime, she was known as a very talented artist who excelled at poetry, calligraphy, and painting from a young age. Her landscape paintings were especially famous, but she was also known for her paintings of plants and insects, as well as her paintings of grapes. One person greatly praised her artworks, writing, “She paints every type of flower and plant in great detail, approaching the level of absolute perfection, which brings greater energy to the movements of the butterflies and other insects.”

Her folding screens of plant-and-insect paintings were so cherished that special copies were made and kept in storage by the Joseon royal court, so that they could be enjoyed by future generations. Jeong Seon (鄭敾, 1676-1759), one of the most famous painters of the late Joseon Dynasty, was influenced by Shin in his own paintings of plants and insects. As a result, she became more famous after her death than she had been while she was alive.

Although Shin painted familiar things from the everyday world, she did not show them in an ordinary or conventional way. Instead, she painted them in her own style, which was very bold and unique. For example, she often painted things that most other painters ignored, such as common grass or wild flowers, or types of insects and animals that people often find unpleasant. Shin had a close connection with nature, and a deep love for all different types of living creatures. In her paintings, she expressed her feelings by showing the close relationship between people and all of the other living beings of the world. Would you like to learn about those creatures too, just like Shin?

Credits: Story

Google Arts & Culture Pop-up Lab

In collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, the Children’s Museum of the National Museum of Korea presents the “Pop-up Lab,” a unique digital venue for hands-on experience where brilliant ideas are popping up everywhere. The Pop-up Lab introduces pieces of cultural heritage from around the world, so that you can freely enjoy the many amazing cultures of the world without ever leaving your home.
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