In the Spring of 1718, a great man said, ‘Each brush stroke is so powerful that it seems like it’s alive, and all things painted must appear as they are in nature with stems and leaves wet with dews, bugs flying about, and a human salivating at the sight of a cucumber and watermelon. This painter’s work is treasured by many across the world. Do you know who this painter is? It’s Shin Sa-imdang, more commonly known as the mother of Yulgok Yi I, a prominent Korean Confucianism scholar. Though she is recognized for being the epitome of a ‘wise mother’ and ‘good wife’, she was, in real life, nothing like a typical wise mother and good wife. SMT brings you the true story of Shin Sa-imdang by looking at her work.
Shin Sa-imdang, Hidden Talent of Korea
Shin Sa-imdang is a Korean female artist who lived from 1504 to 1551. Unlike other Korean females in the past, her actual birth year and death are known to future generations because her son Yulgok Yi I preserved her history. Throughout her short life of just 48 years, she lived with her family, even after marriage. Unlike her husband Lee Wonsu, her family was well off and had power. Moreover, she was the real bread winner of the family. She would send presents to other rich families and receive jewels and silk in return. When it came to her children’s education, she was their sole provider, but gave them freedom to find their own path in life. This method was exceptional and broke from what was expected of a traditional ‘wise mother’ and ‘good wife’. Still, her existence is remembered and honored because of the words of her son Yulgok.
Today, her talent as an artist is being displayed at Seoul Museum. On display are her poetry and 15 of her more notable paintings. Seoul Museum chose her work to mark its fifth year anniversary. The easiest way to get to Seoul Museum is by taking Bus 7016 or 1711 from Bus top 03009 in front of Sookmyung Women’s University metro station and getting off at the ‘Entrance to Jahamoon Tunnel’ stop.
The exhibition entitled ‘Sa-imdang, Her Garden’ displays 14 grass and insect paintings and 1 black and white orchid painting. Visitors are asked to pay close attention to the structure, paint strokes, and material of artwork. Unlike most oriental painting of the time that followed a straight structure, her images of grass and insects flow diagonally on the paper. The works make on lookers’ eyes move from right to left, from bottom to top, and vice versa. lso, upon a closer look, there is no pre-painting outline for her work. Nevertheless, the wings of each butterfly, the leaves on each branch, and the tips of each flower pedal are neatly and precisely done. Her technique is known for its ‘Boneless’ quality. As the main income provider for the family, the material used for her paintings were chosen carefully as they would be suspending on walls. She used a lot of symbolism as well; for example, a withered cucumber, an unripe cucumber, and a frog gazing at a grasshopper all referred to life and death, the course of nature. Four of her paintings on display were done on plain white paper, but 10 were done on a black backdrop. Historians agree that use of black paper was expensive so these paintings were done as gifts that would be repaid by receiver.
One black-and-white painting stands out among the group. It was first introduced to Koreans on the TV program, ‘Jinpummyungpum’, which appraises the value of artwork. It’s appraisal is 130 million won. In addition to her great poetry and paintings, her son’s life and comments on his mother were recorded by Song Si-yeol, who followed Sa-imdang’s son, Yulgok. He eulogized her in his account with words like ‘Her painting are well beyond the abilities of any human. There is no doubt that she was chosen to bear the Great Yulgok.’ Considering the historical time frame, Song Si-yeol, Head of Seo-in (a Western faction), had to deify Yulgok. Their father ‘Lee Wonsu’ was unsuited to the position as he could not pass the state examination, but his son took top place on the examination 9 times. Because of her son’s unimaginable achievement, Shin Sa-imdang is recorded as being a ‘wise mother’ and ‘good wife’ by Song. Ironically, despite Song’s praise and admiration in his writing and his attempt to pass it onto future generation, his envoy damaged the painting. It is because the work made by man was much more important than the work made by woman. What is unacceptable by today’s standards was the reality of female artists at that time.
A Must See Stop
Unlike other museums or exhibitions, Seoul Museum offers its visitors something different on each floor of the museum. In addition to Shin Sa-imdang’s work, there are other great works on display, a museum shop, and Seokpajeong Byeoldang Villa. The top floor of Seokpajeong Byeoldang Villa connects to a separate house for Heungseon Daewongun, the father of Gojong. There guests to the museum enjoy time surrounded by a big old pine tree, a small bamboo grove, a wishing rock, and a pavilion named ‘Seokpajeong’, a designated tangible cultural property. SMT wishes you a great travel to the Shin Sa-imdang exhibition and have a great time at Seoul Museum.