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Courtesans and Commoners: Satire and Eulogy in 18th Century Joseon Genre Paintings

Korea’s tradition of paintings of daily life can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE–668 CE), with such images generally depicting the exclusive and luxurious lives of the upper classes (Huh, 1994, p. 58). However, in the 18th century the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) witnessed the flourishing of a new genre, which focused on the lives of the common people. This emerging shift in artistic taste is thought to have been a response to broader changes in the sociopolitical climate, brought about by the fall of China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) (Chung Y. M., 1993, p. 59).

The main focus of this article is the genre paintings of two artists, Kim Hongdo (Gim Hongdo; c. 1745– after 1806) and Sin Yunbok (c. 1758–?), in relation to Korea’s radical Sirhak (‘practical learning’) social movement and its conflict with the traditional Confucian moral doctrine underpinning the country’s strict class distinctions. Although their genre scenes have different focuses and political implications—the former mainly depicting the welfare of commoners and the latter satirizing affairs between gisaeng (female courtesans) and profligate yangban (aristocrats)—the two artists’ works have equal significance in terms of artistic innovation and as social documents of the late Joseon dynasty.

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May/June 2020
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