Plants and Animals in Korean Old Painting

National Institute of Biological Resources

We opened an exhibition focusing on the paintings of plants and animals chosen from among the old paintings of the Chosen Dynasty. It will provide an opportunity to compare these images with true biological specimens. Through these art works, visitors can appreciate nature and the plentiful symbolism in Korean ancestors' lives. For this exhibition, scientific analyses of the plants and animals in the old paintings were made, and reinterpretations were made of their meanings from the viewpoint of modern biological science.

Flower and bird painting
Bird-and-flower painting is a type of painting named after its subject matter. Normally, most bird-and-flower paintings depict flowering branches and birds. In ancient times, people envied birds flying freely about in the sky and yearned to be like them and thought they were kind of a messenger linking the heavens and the earth, this world and the next. In addition, ancient people drew bird paintings with various symbolism depending on birds’ figures and habitude. Most common birds featured include cranes, one of the ten traditional symbols of longevity, cocks believed to crow away the dark and usher in the morning and magpies delivering good news. On top of them, water birds like ducks, wild geese, lovebirds and egrets as well as mountain birds including hawks, pheasants, sparrows and quails were also common objects for drawing. Old paintings usually come with painter’s comments or writings of those who appreciated the paintings. This speaks well for the beauty of oriental paintings as an integration of art combining poem, calligraphy and painting.         

plant and insect paintings
NIBR, 2012

plant and insect paintings
NIBR, 2012

White-cheeked starling(Spodiopsar cineraceus)
NIBR, 2012

Japanese white-eye(Zosterops japonicus)
NIBR, 2012

Great spotted woodpecker(Dendrocopos major)
NIBR, 2012

Plant and insect paintings
Chochungdo refers to a painting of grass and insects. It mainly depicts plants including water pepper, daylily, peony, and cockscomb, and insects including butterfly, locust, dragonfly, and cicada that we can easily see in our neighborhoods. They were commonly used as materials for painting, and this implies the painter’s hope for a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. If you want to paint something small and ordinary, you need to pay attention to it and observe it closely. Chochungdo was a popular genre of painting during the Joseon Dynasty, frequently painted by many scholars as well as famous artists such as Shin Saimdang, Jeong Seon, Sim Sa-jeong, and Kim Hong-do. Some of the paintings depicted insects very realistically with great detail - the description is almost as vivid as the illustration of insects in encyclopedia produced today. If you compare the Chochungdo paintings with the insect specimen, you will realize how realistically those paintings depicted the insects, and also feel the wit, humor, and rich emotions that are commonly found in Korean paintings. The paintings show that the painters loved and greatly valued the subjects they described, and this also indicates that our ancestors loved all living things around them and lived harmoniously with them.

This is a recreation of the painting of Jeong Seon

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Jeong Seon) with insect specimens, 2012

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Jeong Seon) with insect specimens, 2012

This is a recreation of the painting of Kim Inku, a painter during the 17~18th century of the Joseon Dynasty.

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Kim Ikju) with insect specimens, 2012

Shin Saimdang’s Chochungdo is one of her representative works. This recreation work used samples of inspects that appear in her painting.

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Shin Saimdang) with pressed flower and insect specimens, 2012

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Shin Saimdang) with pressed flower and insect specimens, 2012

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Shin Saimdang) with pressed flower and insect specimens, 2012

Plant and insect paintings
reproduce Plants and Insects (by Shin Saimdang) with pressed flower and insect specimens, 2012

This recreation work attached insect samples on the image of Kim Hong-do’s painting. The red dragonfly and the blue dragonfly may seem like mating, but in fact, these are male dragonflies fighting over territory in the waterside.

This work, using bug samples, is a recreation of the painting of Lee Gyoik, a painter during the late Joseon Dynasty. The painting depicted a toad and a dung beetle with eggplants and eggplant flowers on the background.

Eohaedo - Paintings of Fishes & Wishes for Better Life
Eohaedo refers to a painting of underwater species such as fish and crab. This painting genre dates back to the prehistoric times - rock carvings produced back then indicate the importance of marine life as a food source and the people’s wishes for good luck. Eohaedo paintings usually depict fishes swimming lazily, moving peacefully in groups, jumping out of water, and mating. Those painted during the late Joseon Dynasty, in particular, were influenced by the Practical School of Confucianism and therefore described the types and characteristics of fishes in great detail. They were often produced as a folding screen to be used in events such as weddings and ancestral memorial rites. They also imply the wishes of ordinary people for abundance.

This recreation work attached fish samples on the image of Lee Hancheol’s painting, which described various types of fishes and crabs. The painting, produced in the 19th century, was made into a 10-frame folding screen. This type of paintings was considered to have an auspicious sign, and thus were painted frequently during that time.

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Larimichthys polyactis), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Eriocheir sinensis), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Mugil cephalus), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens(Silurus asotus and Carassius auratus), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Penaeus japonicus), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Takifugu obscurus), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Cyprinus carpio), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Ditrema temminckii), 2012

Fish and crab paintings
reproduce Fish and crab paintings(by Lee Hancheol) with specimens (Lateolabrax japonicus), 2012

Jang Hanjong drew various fish and shellfish, crustacean, tortoise and squid. Specimens of the biological organisms featured in his works are on display.

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

fish and shellfishe
reproduce fish and shellfishe paintings(by Jang Hanjong) with specimens, 2012

Nam Gyeu created a unique style with detailed drawing technique and splendid colors based on precise observation. Butterflies featured in his painting are recreated as a specimen.

Jeong Hongrae drew a hawk looking backwards with his back shown. The hawk in the drawing is astoundingly exquisite in describing white feathers just like its actual specimen.

Most favorite drawing objects were livestock like cows, horses, sheep, pigs and companion animals such as dogs and cats along with wild animals like tigers, deer and rabbits.

Not only natural beauty, but also lyricism, scholarly fidelity, and courage are reflected in Korean old paintings and warmth and humor often appear in many of the paintings. Our ancestors put much symbolism into their paintings, utilizing words with similar pronunciation but with different meanings.Throughout this exhibition, we expect that visitors will have an opportunity to better appreciate these representative works of art, which they have seen only in textbooks about the renowned artists of the Chosen Dynasty: Kim, Hongdo, Shin, Saimdang, Jeong, Seon and more. It will be an opportunity to talk about traditional Korean culture with one's family.
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