What are the types of Korean painting

16 December, 2022

Korean painting has, in the course of history, always had different traditions. There is the typical monochromatic art, made with black brushwork on handmade paper or silk. Art with elements from the Buddhist tradition, like devotional scrolls, ritual arts, historic tomb murals and festival arts, which had an extensive use of colour. And there is folk art, mostly made by common people, called minhwa. Korean art has, for a long time, been under Chinese influence, was obliged by Japanese tradition during the occupation period and inspired by European styles in the modern era. But Korean artists have always kept their own unique style, elements, traditional symbols and patterns. Which all have a meaning and representation. There are subjects that are still favoured today, that date all the way back to the early days of Korean painting.

The Koreanization of Korean art

Paintings from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) offer the richest variety in Korean art history and are the most imitated today. Before the 18th century, landscape paintings depicted famous scenery in China or were scenes of harmony imagined by the artist. When the Korean people started to reclaim their own historical and cultural heritage, they also rediscovered their country’s beautiful nature. This is also called the ‘Koreanization’ of Korean art.

Popular genres and Korean subjects

The beauty of Korean art and the strength of its artists lies in simplicity, spontaneity, and a feeling of harmony with nature. It values tenderness, a sense of balance, serenity and harmony. It is distinguished for its simple and elegant composition. Popular Korean genres throughout the centuries are:

  • Daoist Paintings depicting the ten longevity symbols known as shipjangsaengdo. Which are: the sun, clouds, mountains, water, bamboo, pine, crane, deer, turtle and the mushroom of immortality. They are often all represented in a single picture.
  • Paintings with Confucian and Buddhist elements; showing the Buddha and Confucian art portraying as scholars wearing the traditional stove-pipe hats and monochromatic robes. Usually depicted in a teahouse near mountains or at mountain lodges.
  • Hunting scenes; often seen in Korean courtly art. They are a memory of Mongolian and Persian hunting scenes.
  • Decorative Painting; the vast majority of ancient folk painting, were used for decorative purposes.

Beloved symbols

One of the most popular motifs in Korean folk painting, known as minhwa, is the tiger. It is said that the adoration for the tiger originated from the mythical ‘White Tiger’. A guardian spirit of the east. It is significant for Korean art how the tiger is portrayed. Almost never as a ferocious beast, but mostly as a friendly and sometimes even comical and clumsy animal.

Also, often depicted are the mountain spirit and dragon king motifs. They have their origins in two famous figures in the history of Korea: Dangun and Munmu. Dangun is seen as the predecessor of the Korean people. Who, as legend has it, turned into a mountain spirit. Munmu is considered the first ruler of the Unified Silla period and was known by the title of ‘The dragon king’. He is usually depicted flying amidst the clouds over a sea of high waves.

Popular subjects

Because of the big influence of the Joseon period, there are four categories that are still popular in Korea to this day: landscape and genre painting, minhwa, the Four Gracious Plants and portraits.

Landscape and Genre Painting

When landscape painting evolved as a major genre during the Joseon dynasty, court artist An Gyeon drew his famous landscape painting. It was for Prince Anpyeong and was called ‘Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land’. His distinctive style shaped the direction of the landscape genre, but there was another Korean artist that influenced this genre. After traditional painting styles became more realistic, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style in Korea. Jeong Seon made Korean landscapes hugely popular and is known to be the father of the Korean True View landscape.


Minhwa, also known as Korean folk art made by common people, emerged near the end of the Joseon period. This type of colourful painting was created by anonymous folk artists following traditional forms. This type of art is supposed to bring good luck to the owner’s household. Popular subjects were: everyday life, the tiger, symbols of longevity such as cranes, deer, fungus, rocks, water, clouds, the sun, moon, pine trees and tortoises. The way subjects are presented also has a special meaning. Paired birds for instance are a symbol of marital love. Insects and flowers represent harmony between yin and yang. While books and bookshelves stand for learning and wisdom.

“The Four Gracious Plants”

The Four Gracious Plants, also known as the Gentlemanly Plants: plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo.


Portraits were painted throughout Korean history, but were produced in greater numbers during the Chosun period. Main subjects were: kings, meritorious subjects, elderly officials, literati or aristocrats, women and Buddhist monks.

Modern period

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, from the mid 1880s until 20th century 1945, Japan tried to impose its own culture on all aspects of Korean life, including art. Schools of art in Korea were closed, paintings were destroyed, and artists were obliged to paint Japanese subjects in Japanese style. This was a very difficult period for Korean culture. After World War II, Korean painters assimilated some Western approaches. Making Korean art vanish into a more international style. But elements of Korean painting have also been copied by western artists.

The rising of new art forms

Since the dividing of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea, the west has known very little about North Korean art. Over the years, both countries developed their own unique style. Which resulted in two very different art scenes. During the Kim II-reign, painting was only permitted in the nationalist type. After the death of Kim Il, the restrictions on painting got less and were eventually eliminated. To supplement the propaganda art, new art forms arose. Including a type of painting exclusive to North Korea. Due to its seclusion, North Korea has preserved its more traditional art. While art in South Korea, due to open borders, has been influenced by the west.

Korean painting today

The majority of today’s Korean painters still follow the path of tradition. Each nature’s motif gives meaning to a certain conception of value, such as spiritual strength, firmness, longevity and wisdom. And even though the art scene in Korea has been influenced by different art movements, it has over the past centuries developed a distinctive style of its own. Based on the rich traditional and cultural history of Korea.

The Kaesong Collection

The Kaesong Collection, of high quality North Korean art works, unfolds a stylistic and genre panorama of Korean contemporary painting and brings out two aspects in the development of Korean painting. One is associated with long art traditions of Korea, the East Asian countries and their art heritage. The other, more modernist trends in the arena of world art. Containing the finest contemporary and modern oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. This makes the Kaesong Collection such an exclusive collection.

These works of art are created by noteworthy artists like Jong Chang Mo, Son U Yong, Rim Ryul, Tak Hyo Yeon, Kim Sung Hui, Kim Song Min and many others. Among them are several prize winners at international exhibitions held in Asian countries. They are widely acclaimed in South Korea, China, Japan, The Philippines and Thailand.

An impression of these contemporary artworks from North Korea can be found here https://www.kaesongcollection.com/collection/

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