Rha Hye-Seok: Korea’s Most Daring Feminist Artist

By Google Arts & Culture

Discover the art and ideas of Korea's first professional female painter

There are two reasons why you should learn the name Rha Hye-Seok: not only was she Korea’s first professional female painter, but she was also Korea’s first feminist author. She became renowned for her feminist novels, short stories, and controversial views about marriage equality, while also forging a career as an artist. All at a time when women were expected to focus solely on their responsibilities as wives and mothers.

Na Hye-seokGyeonggi Cultural Foundation

Rha was born into a wealthy family in 1896, and became known for her confidence, intelligence, and ambition – qualities not typically hoped for in a young Korean woman of the era. Korean women were expected to be adept with domestic skills, such as sewing and cooking, and one of their main goals was to raise sons on to whom they would impart good, respectable morals. From a young age Rha made it clear that she did not want to conform to this traditionally idealized role of “good wife, good mother” and instead wanted to be a painter and intellectual.

Hwaseong Fortress Gate in Suwan by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Luckily for her, her parents were unusually progressive about education for the time, and at the age of 18 she was sent to Japan to study at Tokyo Arts College where she majored in Western oil painting.

Landscape by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Rha's experiences in Japan opened her mind and she became more and more aware of all the opportunities the world had to offer. She began to speak out about the Korean marital institution of the early 20th century, which she found old-fashioned and restrictive. She wrote several essays, published an autobiographical novel (considered to be the first feminist novel in Korea), and became the main organizer of the Association of Korean Women Students in Japan. Her father tried to summon her back to Korea to accept a marriage proposal, but she boldly made claim to her independence and instead found a job as a teacher. After graduation, Rha became involved in the movement to end Japanese rule in Korea. She participated in a public demonstration against Japan, known as the March 1st Movement.

Harbor in Spain by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

In 1920, Rha got married to Kim Woo-Young. It was rare to have a love marriage in Korea at the time, but Rha would have settled for nothing less. The disregard for traditional marriage practices was something that the couple had in common, as this was in fact the second marriage for her husband. He promised to let Rha keep painting and pursue a career – although there is no doubt that Rha didn't need anyone’s permission.

Country House by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Throughout her life, Rha became increasingly active and outspoken about the traditional Korean roles for women. In the early 1920s she co-wrote several articles for Sinyoja (meaning “new woman) – the first magazine for Korean women – about the impracticality of traditional women's clothing. She argued for designs that were more comfortable and convenient, and that would give more thought to women’s hygiene and self-image.

Farm House by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Rha also courageously wrote an essay called Thoughts on Becoming a Mother that criticized her husband for not being involved enough in raising their children, something that was traditionally regarded solely as the responsibility of women. A lot of the opposition that Rha received was from people claiming that her ideas were unoriginal and she was just copying Western practices, but in reality Rha was looking to foster an acceptance for independence and individuality within the realm of existing Korean culture.

Hwaseong Fortress Gate in Suwan by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Alongside the work she did writing, Rha was also active in her painting career: she even became the first Korean woman to ever exhibit her art, at an exhibition in Seoul. Rha and Kim Woo-young spent around two years traveling around Europe after Kim’s promotion to the status of high-ranking government official, which gave Rha the opportunity to study painting in France and develop her skills as an artist.

Peonies of Hwayeongjeon Palace by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Unfortunately the trip did not end well as Rha was introduced to Choi Rin, a leading figure in the native Korean religion of Chondogyo, who she reportedly had an affair with. Choi had also been arrested at the March 1st Movement, so clearly shared many values with Na. When the affair was discovered, Rha gained a reputation as morally corrupt and as someone who used her artistic nature as an excuse for promiscuity. Kim Woo-young divorced her and her lover Choi Rin published an indecent article recounting the details of the affair for which Rha, who was not one to passively accept such a betrayal, sued him for defamation.

Stone Pagoda of Haeinsa Temple by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Although Rha’s character was in disrepute and her husband took custody of her children, her art still attracted positive attention and she won a special prize at the 10th Joseon Art Exhibition in 1931. However in 1934, she attracted further criticism when she spoke out about the double standards in Korean marriages in her essay A Divorce Confession. She attacked the patriarchal social system and male-oriented Korean culture and bravely admitted that her marriage had crumbled because her husband had not been able to satisfy her sexually, but also had refused to talk with her about it.

Early Summer Morning by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Unfortunately, this was the straw that broke the camel's back: premarital sex was a taboo subject and it was too much of a scandal for a woman to speak so frankly about her sexuality. People stopped buying Rha’s paintings, essays, or stories and she was reduced to destitution, spending her last years relying on the charity of Buddhist monasteries.

Queen of the Heavenly Palace in Qingdao by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Rha died in poverty on December 10, 1948 at a hospital for vagrants; the location of her grave is unknown. Her name even became a metaphor for young girls with artistic sensibilities. “Do you want to become another Rha Hye-Seok?” became a saying to discourage daughters who dreamed of becoming writers or painters. It is also difficult to confidently verify the authenticity of many paintings attributed to her.

Garden by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Despite this, Rha Hye-Seok is regarded as one of Korea's great painters. She was a pioneer of Korean feminism and planted the seeds for change way ahead of her time, as well as paving the way for future Korean women artists.

Dancers by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

Carriage by Na Hye-seokKorea Data Agency

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