Portraits of Cho Kwan-bin, a Sturdy Scholar Official

The Gyeonggi Provincial Museum presents an exhibition featuring portraits of Cho Kwan-bin who served as the director of the Office of Special Counselors (홍문관, 弘文館) during the reign of King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. To be displayed at this exhibit are his six portraits including a full-length portrait that was donated in June 2016, one and a half years ago. This exhibition is intended to shed light on his life as a scholar-official of Joseon through his own eulogy for his portraits while enabling viewers to catch a glimpse of the donation procedure and the preservation treatment process. 

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1750)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Meet with Cho Kwan-bin

I still have vivid memories of the day when I called at donor Cho Beom-shik’s abode. I had received a phone call from him last summer in which he mentioned he owned several portraits of one of his ancestors but that they were very poorly kept. After I flew right over to his residence, the portraits were spread out in both rooms and the living room. Thrilled to come face to face with them, I examined each one by one. The old courtier with distinct pupils, reddish lips, and a scraggly beard appeared so vivid as if they had been painted yesterday and I felt like he was in front of me despite hundreds of years having slipped by. An amazing, strange atmosphere was sensed in that moment. It was the moment when I faced portraits of Cho Kwan-bin that had never been made public.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1750)Gyeonggi Province Museum

I meticulously examined the state of the portraits after calming myself down. Two half-length portraits were still in relatively good shape. The draft portraits on oil-coated paper had been kept rolled up for a long time and, while difficult to spread out, displayed no serious damage. The condition of the full-length portrait appeared poor as it had been severely folded and had some torn portions, gaps, and even brown stains. Mr. Cho worried that the stains had been caused by a humidity scavenger that he had placed in the storage tray for dehumidification purposes. The humidity scavenger poured on the portrait caused brown stains but they were fortunately on mounted parts, not picture parts. When we examined the back of the portrait, we found mounted paper missing in the section featuring the official robe. Pigment would also become detached whenever the picture was rolled up or unrolled. The degree of damage can be presumed considering our experience with how flesh becomes exposed when the skin is grazed.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1750)Gyeonggi Province Museum

We let him know about the present preservation state of those artifacts and discussed how to properly preserve them. We told him that it was urgently required to mount the full-length portrait in particular to prevent any more damage and that the damage might continue at a constant rate if the stains caused by the humidity scavenger were not completely removed.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1750)Gyeonggi Province Museum

We heard from him a few days later. It was then that he told us about his decision to donate the portraits for their preservation and safety. This determination to preserve the portraits was something he had inherited from his ancestors.

Portraits of Cho Kwan-bin Preservation Treatment ProcessGyeonggi Province Museum

Portraits of Cho Kwan-bin
Preservation Treatment Process

Video 1: Basic inspection and separation
Video 2: Cleaning
Video 3: Reinforcing, backing paper, and mounting

FacingGyeonggi Province Museum

Cho Kwan-bin

Cho Kwan-bin (조관빈, 趙觀彬, 1691-1757) was a Neo-Confucian scholar and politician who held a series of important governmental posts such as Minister of Finance, Minister of Rites, Administrator of the Central Council (지중추부사, 知中樞府事), and Director of the Office of Special Counselors (홍문관대제학, 弘文館大提學) during the reign of King Yeongjo. He was a member of the Yangju clan, his nickname was Gukbo, his courtesy name was Hoeheon, and his posthumous name was Mungan. He was a son of Cho Tae-che who was one of the four high officials of the Noron, a political faction of the Joseon Dynasty.

In 1714 Cho passed the highest civil service examination and entered government service. In 1723, however, he was exiled to Heongyanghyeon, Jeju-do alongside his father due to the Purge of 1721-1722. In 1725 he was again nominated for deputy director. After visiting the Qing Dynasty as a winter solstice envoy, he was appointed as Minister of Rites and Commander of the Defense Command and also served as the Director of the Office of Special Counselors in 1753. He resigned, was dismissed, and then demoted several times as his declaration to work off a grudge of the four high officials of the Noron including his father conflicted with King Yeongjo’s policy of equal opportunity for all political factions.

He compiled the Revised Illustrated Manual of Military Training and Tactics (속병장도설, 續兵將圖說) which accounts for central command military organization and the disposition of troops. The Collection of Cho Kwan-bin’s Literary Works (회헌집, 晦軒集) includes sentences and lyrics written by royal command that were used for national rituals, his own eulogy for his self-portrait, poems, memorials, and funeral orations. 

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1750)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Portraits of Cho Kwan-bin (full-length portrait in official attire

A government official wearing a black silk hat and a green round-necked robe with cloud and treasure designs is sitting with his hands together. Some unidentified anxiety and longing can be sensed in his stony expression. He is Cho Kwan-bin who served as a civil official during the reign of King Yeongjo.

This painting displays a typical characteristic of mid-18th century portraits of scholar officials. The hat he wears is slightly high and the ends of its wings are a little bit wider and rounder than those produced during King Sukjong’s time. The official robe he wears is a dark green color called galmae-saek which was a great vogue in the years of King Sukjong. Its generously flowing sleeves are quite wide and stretch richly downward. A blue lining and a jade green coat with pleats worn under this robe peek out from its right opening.

On its chest portion is a twin crane rank badge that stands for the fact its wearer was a palace-ascendable civilian official while a belt with rhinoceros horn ornaments is around his waist.

Cho Kwan-bin held several ministerial offices, all of which were applicable to senior rank two, and his last public post was as the Administrator of the Central Council (지중추부부사, 知中樞府事). A silk belt with gold ornaments should be worn for this public office but a belt with rhinoceros horn ornaments used by those one rank higher was at times applied to this level of government post. In the late Joseon period, tiger skin fur was laid on the chair. The fur was imported from China beginning in the 18th century and was a big trend up until the end of the Joseon Dynasty. His two feet are placed lightly on a rectangular foot pedestal decorated with a figured mat.

Let’s examine the face of this portrait. The entire face has been done in an apricot hue while a sort of cubic effect is engendered by a slightly darker color that has been applied to the area around his eyes and cheeks. His eyes that seem to look slightly downwards, his sparse beard, the sunken round parts under his eyebrows, and some protuberant areas under the eyes help to represent a sturdy appearance of a high official who tried to remain faithful and uphold his cause as a Neo-Confucian official of Noron while undergoing banishment several times.

The year of its production cannot be concluded as there is no information on this picture. It was presumably painted in early 1750 when he was roughly 60 years of age. This is based on comparisons of the portraits done when he was 55 and 57 that were donated alongside this portrait.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1745)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (half-length portrait in everyday robe)

This is a portrait of Cho Kwan-bin in a rose pink robe worn by officials while engaged in official duties. The caption “東湖趙公五十五歲眞” (동호조공오십오세진) written at the top hints that this portrait was painted in 1745 when he was 55. Cho’s pen name was Hoeheon but Dongho, his other nickname, seems to have been used often in his old age.

Every strand of his beard was delicately depicted and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes were realistically portrayed along with his red lips on his pinkish apricot face. Outlines and features were depicted in darker lines while a slight cubic effect was aroused by lending some shade to his deeply seamed eye rims and nasolabial folds. Cho’s expressionless face with downcast eyes is in contrast with the bright ambiance engendered by the gorgeous official’s outfit and the silk belt with gold ornaments.

These types of half-length portraits in which the person in the work is portrayed in an everyday robe are housed in the National Museum of Korea and Tenri University in Japan, among which this portrait is the most outstanding.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1748)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (half-length portrait in official attire)

The caption “東湖趙公五十八歲眞” (동호조공오십팔세진) written in the upper right hints that this portrait was rendered in 1748 when Cho was 58.

The figure in this portrait wears a round-necked official robe and a black silk hat. Attached to this attire is a rank badge embroidered with a twin crane design. He also wears a belt with rhinoceros horn ornaments. Like other portraits of Cho Kwan-bin, his features were portrayed with lines while shades were applied to sunken parts in his face to express a sense of reality, which was typical in the mid-and-late 18th century.

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated PaperGyeonggi Province Museum

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated Paper: A Painter’s Efforts to Make His Portrait More Perfect 

These three draft portraits are very interesting materials that display the process of completing a portrait on silk. They are rough sketches done on oil-coated paper before being painted on silk. The oil-coated paper used for these pictures has turned opaque brown over time but it was almost transparent white when it was first produced. 

Rough sketches for a portrait were often rendered on oil-coated paper in consideration of its opaque characteristic that is similar to silk. Sketches done on oil-coated paper enabled its practitioners to guess the effect of coloring on the reverse side of a painting as colors also show through from the back side of oil paper. That is, portraits on silk could be easily inferred from sketches or paintings done first on oil-coated paper. The most salient feature of Joseon portraiture is the use of draft portraits rendered on oil-coated paper.

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated Paper, From the collection of: Gyeonggi Province Museum
Show lessRead more

This draft portrait on oil paper demonstrates the first phase of making a portrait with an image drawn only in ink. The official robe and silk winged hat were depicted in thick brush lines whereas the face was very delicately portrayed.

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated Paper, From the collection of: Gyeonggi Province Museum
Show lessRead more

This is a portrait painted on oil-coated paper featuring Cho Kwan-bin as he wears an everyday official outfit. The silk hat that was sketched in ink and then colored black shows further progress in work. The face was painted white on the back of the paper and its degree of completion was enhanced with the addition of details to his eyebrows, beard, and pupils on the front side.

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated Paper, From the collection of: Gyeonggi Province Museum
Show lessRead more

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated PaperGyeonggi Province Museum

This portrait shows the highest level of completion among the three. Not only the face and silk hat but also the round-necked robe were colored. The attire was depicted roughly while the face was realistically represented with attention to detail. As a result, this draft portrait looks highly mature and stands comparison with the finished portrait.

Coloring was applied to the back of the paper after the entire outline was drawn in ink. Then, the portrait was completed by depicting details on the front side. The face was colored in pink from the back of the paper so that a pink tone is exuded as the basic color of the face. A serene cubic effect and a sense of space were engendered by adding a darkish tone to the wrinkles and cheeks from the front.

Left on the back side are clear marks of coloring that were used to get an idea of the coloring effect in the completed portrait. The whole face was painted a pinkish flesh color and the collar of the robe was painted white from the back. Brush strokes of flesh and black hues left in the middle of the hat are presumed to have been employed to test the coloring effect of ink and flesh colors from the back since the hat’s body portion was colored in with thick ink on the front.

These three draft portraits denote that portraits of the Joseon Dynasty were produced through a very premeditative and elaborate preparation process. They reflect the painter’s effort to paint the model as realistically as possible through a portrayal of the face that uses a technique of coloring from the back and meticulous depictions of each strand of beard. These portraits indicate that such a work process has been of great significance in allowing Korean portraits to approach even closer to perfection.

Draft Portraits on Oil-Coated Paper, From the collection of: Gyeonggi Province Museum
Show lessRead more

The Collection of Cho Kwan-bin’s Literary by Cho Kwan-binGyeonggi Province Museum

A Eulogy for Portraits, Records on Portraits Cho Kwan-bin Passed down 

Two pieces of eulogies for his own portraits are in The Collection of Cho Kwan-bin’s Literary Works (회헌집, 晦軒集). One of them is as follows.

The Collection of Cho Kwan-bin’s Literary by Cho Kwan-binGyeonggi Province Museum


The eulogy is an apparent representation of his intent and will to firmly uphold his fidelity in portraits and hand it down to posterity.

Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (1745)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Writings Left in a Portrait 

Written in the top of a Portrait of Cho Kwan-bin (half-length portrait in everyday robe) is the following. This is identical with the second eulogy found in The Collection of Cho Kwan-bin’s Literary Works. 

In 1747, one of his portraits was brought into the palace and it seemed that King Yeongjo viewed it in person. The Office of Royal Portrait Reproduction was established to produce portraits of King Sukjong and Cho Kwan-bin took charge of its reproduction at the office at the time. Perhaps, this served as an opportunity for King Yeongjo to view his portrait and for Cho to write a eulogy. After seeing his portrait, King Yeongjo mentioned “Your image is clean and pure. As time slips by, you get old and take on much of your father.” 

戊辰春, 自上命模寫都監, 取入家藏畵像御覽. 入侍時, 下敎曰, 卿貌淸而粹, 摸得依然老去, 多先相典刑. 覽圖, 有念舊之感, 恩敎鄭重, 不勝感泣. 作畵像自贊, 書諸軸上. 贊曰.


Add glue(gelatinoid)Gyeonggi Province Museum

Portrait, Its Presence 

A portrait in Joseon’s Confucian culture was not merely for appreciation - it represented the person themselves. Portraits of Cho Kwan-bin could be inherited today because his descendants have continued to regard such portraits as their ancestor. They have preserved them even in crisis situations caused by wars and other upheavals, especially like the disastrous flood of 1925 in which people’s homes were swept away. These works were just barely able to survive since people have a special perception towards portraits.

Cho Kwan-bin made a lifetime effort to be royal and keep his faith as a Neo-Confucian scholar official in the Joseon Dynasty. Since then, his posterity has tried to render homage to his will by looking after his portraits. 

Accordingly, the Gyeonggi Provincial Museum intends to maintain this portrait tradition by preserving them and letting the public know of their significance.

Credits: Story

Exhibition planning&support :
Lee, Yeong Eun(Geyonggi provincial Museum)
Kim, Tae Yong(GGCF Media Marketing Team)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Korean Heritage
Explore stories that have shaped the lives of the people of Korea
View theme
Google apps