Animals and Plants in Korean Traditional Paintings II: Cats and Sparrows

Cats and Sparrows by Byeon Sang-byeok, court painter famous for his paintings of animals

Cat and Sparrows (Joseon Dynasty, 18th century) by Byeon SangbyeokNational Museum of Korea

Cats and Sparrows is one of the most famous works by Byeon Sang-byeok (卞相璧, 1730-1775), an artist of the late Joseon Dynasty, who was well-known for both his portraits of people and his paintings of animals.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of this wonderful painting. One cat sits on the ground, looking up at another cat that is climbing a tall tree. Perched among the branches of the tree, a group of sparrows is nervously chirping. The outlines of the tree were drawn with a thicker brush, with a rough brush used to add texture to the bark. On the other hand, the cats and sparrows were painted very precisely, one hair at a time, using a very thin brush.

The two striped cats resemble cats that we might still see today in the streets of Seoul. The grey-striped cat, with its back arched in a tense pose, stares down at the black-striped cat, which sits calmly on the ground, craning its neck to look up at the grey-striped cat. This exchange of looks creates a feeling of tension between the two cats. Is the grey-striped cat climbing the tree to get away from the larger black-striped cat?

Look at the two cats’ paws: while the black-striped cat has its round paws resting comfortably on the ground,

the grey-striped cat has its sharp claws out, clinging to the tree, and its back legs are fully stretched to support itself. This contrast in the posture of the cats adds to the tense atmosphere.

Meanwhile, in the branches of the tree, among the light green leaves and buds, six anxious sparrows exchange looks, as if to alert one another to the dangerous situation.

Based on the flexible posture, meticulous detail, and natural movement of the cats, Byeon had clearly spent a long time observing real cats. Certainly, cats and sparrows are creatures that are familiar to us, but the astonishing detail—especially the yellow eyes, white whiskers, pink noses, and taut legs of the cats—could not have been achieved without studying cats up-close for many hours.

Byeon’s animal paintings are so realistic that they are said to have elicited amazement from viewers. In fact, he was so skilled at painting cats and chickens that he was nicknamed “Byeon Cat” or “Byeon Chicken.” This masterpiece combines superb composition with a magnificent description of the two cats and the sparrows.

Notably, cats and sparrows were popular themes in traditional Korean painting, symbolizing the joy of a long life. This is because the Chinese character for “cat” (猫) sounds like the character for an “elderly person” (耄), while the character for “sparrow” (雀) sounds like the character for “magpie” (鵲), a bird that is associated with joy and celebration.

The animals in traditional Korean paintings were motifs that were familiar from everyday life, which explains why such paintings have been beloved for so many years. Can you make a painting of something from everyday life, like Byeon?

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.
This is the first time that Google has created a hands-on digital venue exclusively for children. When culture meets technology in the Pop-up Lab, dreams become reality. So let your imagination run wild! Who knows? One day, the world of your imagination might even become real!

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