A King Newly Discovered – Sketch of King Sejo’s Royal Portrait

National Palace Museum of Korea

The majority of the original portraits of Joseon’s kings have been destroyed by fire. Among the royal portraits of Joseon that have been lost is that of King Sejo, the seventh ruler of the Joseon dynasty. Fortunately, however, there is a sketch of King Sejo’s portrait that was used by an artist to copy the royal portrait in 1935.

The National Palace Museum of Korea acquired a new royal portraiture artifact in November 2016. The sketch of a royal portrait of Sejo (1417 - 1468; Reign: 1455 - 1468), the seventh King of the Joseon Dynasty, was obtained through auction. The sketch of a royal portrait is part of the conceptualization process and serves as a base for producing the final artwork. Sometimes, it serves as a template for producing similar work at a later time. The sketch of King Sejo's royal portrait is depicted using only ink on thin semi-transparent paper, and although not complete, it's an important resource of information as an actual royal portrait of King Sejo does not exist. So, who created this sketch, how did it survive, and how did it end up at the National Palace Museum of Korea?

A rectangular seal marked "Kim Eun-ho-in (金殷鎬印)" can be seen at the bottom-right corner of this sketch, indicating that the artist is the modern-era portrait painter Eun-ho Kim (1872 - 1979). In 1912, Kim entered the Association of Calligraphy and Painting (Gyeongseong Seohwa Misulhoi), studied painting under the likes of Seok-jin Jo and Jung-sik An. He was especially skilled in delicately shading when drawing portraits, producing images almost like photographs. At the commission of Emperor Gojong, who recognized Kim's talent, he painted many royal portraits of Emperor Gojong and Emperor Sunjong from 1913 to 1935. Being active during the Japanese colonial period, this is the reason why he's often referred to as the "last royal portrait painter."

In the Joseon Dynasty, when a portrait was recognized as being no different than the subject him or herself, every last detail of a person's likeness was captured in the artwork. When a copy was made of a portrait, the details were rendered faithful to the original. Although relatively simple, this sketch is presumed to faithfully reflect King Sejo's likeness. In his portrait, King Sejo can be seen wearing a royal dragon robe and court hat, sitting in an assembly throne with both hands in his sleeves. His round face is emphasized by full cheeks and chin, while his eyes and eyebrows appear slightly wilted and sad. The nose and mouth are small, and the facial hair is short and thin, adding to his young and gentle appearance. King Sejo was known for eliminating political enemies, including his younger siblings, and usurping the throne from his nephew, King Danjong. In popular culture, King Sejo often appears cold and calculating, yet his real face in the portrait couldn't be farther from the stereotypical image. In stark contrast to the sharp eyes and strong protruding cheekbones of the stern-looking King Taejo in his royal portrait, King Sejo leaves viewers with a much softer impression.

Eun-ho Kim's sketch of King Sejo's royal portrait differs from traditional royal portrait sketches in several respects. First, sketches were traditionally drawn on oil-impregnated hanji (traditional Korean paper made from mulberry trees) paper. Kim, however, did not use such paper for his sketch. Kim's sketch is on six separate sheets semi-transparent yellow paper that have been joined together to create a larger sheet approximately 70 cm by 50 cm in size. Perhaps it's due to the use of different materials, but unlike other Joseon-era portraits on oil-impregnated hanji paper, Kim's sketch did not feature coloring on the back of the paper. Another distinction is that in the Joseon era, sketches of royal portraits were prohibited from being kept by the artist. After a royal portrait was completed, the sketch was usually burnt or washed and buried in a clean place. This was because there was worry that the sketch of a royal portrait, perceived to be no different than the King himself, would remain in circulation with others or be neglected. However, times were quite different in 1935. Since a sketch was an important asset to an artist, it would have been natural for Eun-ho Kim, a renowned painter at the time, to keep his sketch.

After Eun-ho Kim's work was completed in 1936, all 48 royal portrait were located in Seonwonjeon Temple at Changdeokgung Palace. After the outbreak of the Korean War, however, royal artifacts, including said royal portraits, were temporarily relocated and stored in a brick-and-mortar warehouse within Busan National Gugak Center in Donggwang-dong, Busan. Unfortunately, most of the artifacts were lost due to a fire that broke out in the nearby refugee shantytown in December 1954. Although some of the remaining royal portraits are currently housed in the National Palace Museum of Korea, they've regrettably suffered damage and are incomplete. Both the original and Eun-ho Kim's copy of King Sejo's royal portrait were lost to history. The re-emergence of this invaluable artifact that had been stored by the artist is a fortunate event, providing new generations with an opportunity to experience portraiture of the Joseon era.

Credits: Story


Hong-ju Lee

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