What is traditional Korean painting

1 November, 2022

Major events affect art, and art affects events. The interconnectedness of history and art is ever present in the art world. Wars, liberation, discoveries, freedom or censorship all have a big influence on art and tells us a lot about a culture, and it’s history. So in order to answer the question; what is traditional Korean painting, we need to travel trough time.

First, a little history of korean painting

In earlier days, the first half of the 1st millennium, Korea was divided between three states, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Together known as the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Towards the end of the 1st millennium, Goguryeo was resurrected as Goryeo, which defeated the two other states and unified the Korean Peninsula as a single sovereign state. The name Goryeo later transliterated as ‘Cauli’, during the time of the Silk Road. The English words ‘Corea’ and later ‘Korea’, eventually came from this transliteration. 

The Joseon era

Goryeo eventually fell to a coup led by General Yi Seong-gye, who established Joseon (Chosŏn) on 17 July 1392. The first 200 years of the Joseon era were marked by relative peace. During this period, the Korean alphabet was created and there was increasing influence of Confucianism. In August 1910, Japan annexed the Korean Empire, directly ruling the country until the end of World War II in 1945.

The dividing of a country

After the capitulation of Japan, Korea was divided in the two countries: North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and South Korea (the Republic of Korea). Now the North was under Soviet control and the South under American control. These circumstances became the basis for the division of Korea by these two countries with different ideologies. The Communist-inspired government in the North received backing from the Soviet Union in opposition to the pro-Western government in the South, leading to Korea’s division into two sovereign states in 1948: North Korea, and South Korea. Tensions between the two resulted in the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. 

How history influenced Korean painting

Until The earliest Korean paintings that are found, are the tomb murals in the Goguryeo tombs. They display dancers, hunting and spirits. the Joseon dynasty the primary influence was Chinese painting done with Korean landscapes, facial features, Buddhist topics, and an emphasis on celestial observation in keeping with the rapid development of Korean astronomy. During the mid-to-late Joseon period, which is considered the Golden Age of Korean painting, Confucianism predominated. Even though Korean painting has been influenced by Chinese styles, it was still pursuing its own path. 

Important Korean art periods

Three Kingdoms period (circa 57 BCE–668 CE)

Each of the Three Kingdoms, Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo, had its own unique painting style, although still under Chinese influence. Early Silla paintings, while said to be inferior in technique to those of Goryeo and Baekje, tended to be more fanciful and free-spirited. Some of them could almost be considered impressionistic.

Koryŏ period (918–1392)

During the Goryeo (Koryo) period, the flourishing of Buddhism created a need for Buddhist painting with Buddhist elements. Even though the influence of Confucianism outmoded that of Buddhism, Buddhist art was still seen in private homes. During the Goryeo era, artists began painting more realistically. 

Chosŏn period (1392–1910)

Joseon era paintings offer the richest variety and are the most imitated today. The spread of Confucianism during the Joseon period stimulated a renewal of the arts. The decline of Buddhism as the dominant culture moved Korean painting in a more secular direction. Paintings of the Joseon period largely imitated northern Chinese painting styles, but certain painters attempted to develop a distinctly Korean approach, using non-Chinese techniques and painting Korean landscapes and scenes from Korean daily life. 

Popular genres and Korean subjects

Throughout the history of Korean painting, there has been a constant separation of monochromatic works of black brushwork, usually on mulberry paper or silk. And the colourful folk art or minhwa, ritual arts, tomb paintings, and festival arts which demonstrated extensive use of colour. This distinction was often class-based. 


  • Daoist Paintings; depicting longevity symbols such as the tiger, mountain spirit and dragon king. Also, part of this genre, are the ten surviving Naewat-dang shamanic paintings. They are among the oldest shamanic paintings known in Korea.
  • Buddhist and Confucian paintings; 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. 


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

Landscape and Genre Painting

When painting styles moved towards realism, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style. Jeong Seon (1676-1759), is known to be the father of the True View landscape painting. Before, Korean artists were mostly orientated towards China. Jeong Seon made the painting of Korean landscapes hugely popular and is still most imitated to this day.


Minhwa, also known as Korean folk art, 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: the tiger (a mountain god), symbols of longevity such as cranes, deer, fungus, rocks, water, clouds, the sun, moon, pine trees and tortoises. The way subjects are presented also have 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 Joseon period. Main subjects were: kings, meritorious subjects, elderly officials, literati or aristocrats, women and Buddhist monks.

The Modern period

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910 until 1945 Japan tried to impose its own culture on all aspects of Korean life, including art. Korean schools of art 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, as they have been influenced by Korean art. 

A mountain that brings artists together

Jeong Seon (father of the True View), painted around 100 pictures of Mount Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountain) with its impressive Birobong peak. These paintings still exist to this day. You can see them at Gansong Art Museum and the National Museum of Korea. His approach and love for this mountain range still influences and inspires Korean artists from the North and the South to this day. The Diamond Mountain itself has always been a muse for Korean artists. But since the mountain is located in North Korea, South Koreans could not visit this cherished site for over 50 years, after Korea was divided in 1948. Fifty years later, North Korea opened it to South Korean tourists and artists, which made is possible to visit and be inspired by this so often depicted and much admired muse. 

Korean paintings 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. It was history that destined Korean art to be directly influenced by traditional Chinese painting. And even though it has adopted its principal element – the line -, it has over the past centuries developed a distinctive style of its own.

The Kaesong Collection

The Kaesong Collection 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 Far East countries and their art heritage. The other, more modernist trends in the arena of world art. You will find an impression of the art works here. https://www.kaesongcollection.com/collection/ 

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