Among the most meticulously painted and most impressive of Korean paintings of the hunt, this eight-panel folding screen depicts a spectacular hunting scene set in an autumn landscape in which a large party of Manchu hunters pursues wild animals while holding bows, swords, and matchlock guns along with such pole weapons as lances, spears, tridents, and flails. Unlike many extant hunting screens that depict a large number of horsemen chasing animals in vast spaces, this screen presents a hunting expedition with emphasis on the participants. And, differing from many surviving hunting screens in which the numerous hunters appear far in the distance, this screen’s participants not only occupy the foreground but are clearly recognizable as individuals. The eight panels, which read from right to left in continuous fashion, can be understood as a single unified composition; at the same time, each panel can comfortably stand as an independent canvas. Because the majority of extant Korean hunting screen are done in a folk style, this meticulously painted screen ranks among the small handful of such screens done in the lofty court style and almost certainly by a court painter. In short, it not only ranks among the very finest Korean paintings of the hunt but among the masterworks of Korean painting.
Rendered in vivid mineral colors but with nuanced tones for the garments and faces, the figures stand visually apart from the landscape, which is painted in varied but somber tones of ink, thus lending an austere and desolate quality to the wilderness. Dark, angular brushstrokes define the rugged mountains and overhanging rocks in the right half of the composition, while slender, delicate brushstrokes describe the level plains and rolling mountains in the left half.
The scene opens quietly in Panel 1, at the far right, with towering mountains and huge boulders. An unobtrusive waterfall cascades to the left of the center, balancing the rocky cliff at the right. High on this cliff are four monkeys who are barely noticeable, which emphasizes the remoteness of the setting. Some of the trees clinging to the rocky cliffs are changing colors while others are leafless, suggesting that the season is autumn. The towering rocky mountain forms that fill the entire pictorial space in Panel 1 continue onto Panels 2 and 3. Below the mountains, two Manchu hunters can be seen in the lower left of Panel 2, talking to each other while walking in the direction of Panel 3. The next four panels offer a dramatic contrast to the stillness conveyed at the beginning of the screen. Panel 3 includes six Manchu ladies wearing blue, white, green, and brown jackets who make their colorful appearance as participants in—or perhaps merely as observers of—this expedition. Visible through a partially open curtain exquisitely embellished with a floral pattern, a noblewoman, dressed in bright green, sits within the horse-drawn carriage. Held by unseen attendants, two tall, furled banners in blue and yellow—and trimmed in red—rise half-hidden behind the carriage. Each of the two ladies-in-waiting on either side the carriage holds a tall, peacock-feather-edged, circular-fan-like emblem that signals a noble presence.
The space partly opens up in Panel 4 to show a distant lake in the composition’s upper half. Six Manchu hunters on horseback and wearing outfits in varied colors appear in the lower half, heading toward Panel 5. The one dressed in the light aubergine jacket bends backward, dramatically aiming his bow and arrow at two birds in a tree; strapped to his back, his arrow-filled quiver is clearly visible. The hunter in light blue holds a falcon on his left hand, while a small black-and-white spotted dog sits behind him on the horse. Among the group is an important looking man seated on a white horse and wearing a leopard-skin jacket and a fur-trimmed hat; flanking him, men blow horns to initiate the hunt. Panel 5 depicts a group of eleven Manchu hunters on horseback arrayed diagonally and advancing forward. Between two tall fluttering white and yellow banners with red streamers held by two men is the expedition’s central figure; he is shown on a white horse and wearing a tiger-skin jacket, blue hat with a white ornament, and arrow-filled quiver. All the figures appearing on this and the other panels are smartly dressed, wearing Manchu clothing with narrow horseshoe-shaped sleeves and such typical headgear as hats with red silk tassels, fur-trimmed hats topped by ornaments, and round hats with upturned brims. They are clearly distinguishable as individuals with distinct facial features that reveal their ages. Interestingly, the head of the nearer of the two figures holding a banner is tonsured, in the manner of a Buddhist monk; the more distant of the two banner-holding figures has either a bald head or a shaven pate. Birds and game hang from the hunters’ saddles and lance tips. Panel 6 represents an advance team of three hunters leading the central group toward the open field in Panels 7 and 8, where the hunt actually takes place. Holding a musket, a bow, and a circular, red, drum-like object, the three figures make their way into the bleak, barren terrain at the far left. As expected, the elegant hunting expedition indeed comes to an end in Panels 7 and 8, where the energetic hunt is in progress. In a field some distance away, three horsemen holding a trident, a bow, and a flail form a circle and close in on a tiger and a deer, each animal running in desperate attempt to escape. The archer turning his body back at full gallop to shoot at the tiger recalls the tradition of the Parthian shot. A tall figure with a yellow banner and red streamers is shown disappearing over a distant hill together with several other figures.
Hunting screens of this type are variously characterized in Korean as Suryeop-do (“Hunting Scenes”), Horyeop-do (“Tiger Hunting Scenes”), or Horyeop-do (“Barbarian Hunting Scenes”). Such paintings had a long history in Korea as illustrated by the spirited hunters that appear in wall paintings in the fifth-century Tomb of the Dancers at Gungaeseong, from Korea’s Goguryeo Kingdom (c. 37 BC–AD 668). The popularity of such paintings continued, as mentions of paintings on the subject by King Gongmin (r. 1351–1374), Kang Hui’eon (1738–1784), and others appear in historical records, though few such paintings have survived to the present.
Hunting customs were vigorously maintained and practiced in China during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) to reinforce the Manchu ethnic identity of the Qing imperial family; moreover, the imperial hunt at Mukden, the Manchu homeland, was conducted as an annual rite in which the emperor participated. Artists at the Qing court produced documentary paintings to
commemorate the hunts, including those in which the emperor participated; such Chinese images likely played a key role as pictorial sources for the hunting scenes painted in Korea late in the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).
Paintings of the hunt gained renewed popularity in eighteenth-century Korea as prejudice against the culture of China’s Qing dynasty declined and curiosity toward foreign customs and ethnicities increased, thanks to diplomatic exchanges between China and Korea in the late Joseon era. In fact, despite Korea’s strained relationship with the Mongols during China’s Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), and occasionally with the Manchus during China’s Manchu Qing dynasty, Koreans maintained great admiration for both the Mongols’ and the Manchus’ superb hunting and equestrian skills .
Extant Korean hunting screens virtually all date from the late eighteenth century onward (though a few scroll paintings of the hunt date from earlier periods). It is widely held that Kim Hongdo (1745–c. 1806 or later) revived Korean interest in such paintings and that most Korean paintings of the hunt derive from the few hunting scenes that he painted. The earliest Joseon paintings of the hunt likely were produced for members of the royal family and high-ranking court officials. Such paintings later became popular among military officers as an emblem of martial spirit and military prowess. As hunting screens gained a broader audience in the nineteenth century, folk paintings on the theme were produced in abundance for the masses. In fact, most early nineteenth-century hunting screens exhibit such characteristics of folk art as naïve treatment of motifs, addition of auspicious symbols, and spontaneous, sometimes whimsical, brushwork.
The anthesis of folk art, this magnificent screen, with its well-organized composition, detailed description, meticulous brushwork, and high-quality materials—i.e., silk, mineral pigments, and gold—charges the hunting scene with palpable tension by capturing the dynamic movement of the hunters and thereby conveys the thrill of the hunt. The gradually shrinking hills and narrowing mountain paths combine with the distant mountains to create a sense of recession into deep space. And the shading carefully applied in describing the garments and faces imparts a sense of three-dimensional volume. The small, cube-shaped rocks on the mountains, the angular rockeries modeled with modified lotus-vein texture strokes, and the choppy brushstrokes in localized areas of the landscape clearly reflect Kim Hongdo’s style. In particular, the very slender, leggy tree branches resembling deer antlers embrace a key characteristic of Kim Hongdo’s style. In fact, the spiky trees in this screen compare favorably with those in two works by Kim Hongdo in the collection of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul: a 1796-dated painting titled “Album of the Byeongjin Year” (Korean Treasure 782) and an 1805-dated handscroll titled “Ode to the Sound of Autumn” (Korean Treasure 1393), which illustrates a poem written by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072).
Known by his sobriquet, or ho, Danwon, and by his courtesy name, or ja, Saneung, Kim Hongdo was a renowned painter active in the late eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. A pillar of the establishment, he was a key figure in advocating new trends of the day, including the then newly introduced “true view” landscape painting—that is, a Korean style of painting that moved away from the idealized Chinese landscape scenes favored by earlier generations to portray particular locations in Korea. Kim was an exceptional artist in every field of traditional painting, even if he now is best remembered for his genre paintings that captured the lives of ordinary people with humor and empathy.
Kim Hongdo studied under the renowned master painter and government official Kang Sehwang (1713–1791), who was then living in seclusion in Ansan in Gyeonggi province. On Kang’s recommendation, Kim Hongdo in 1766, at the age of 21, entered royal service as a member of the Dohwaseo, the Royal Bureau of Painting. After a productive life in which he created numerous paintings of the highest caliber, Kim died in loneliness and poverty, though the circumstances of his later life remain unknown, and even the year of his death is shrouded in mystery. (Various sources suggest that he likely died in 1806, in 1810, or even after 1814.)
Kim Hongdo was King Jeongjo’s (r. 1776–1800) most trusted court painter, and, with the king’s patronage, he arguably was the most versatile and accomplished painter Korea had ever produced. Not only was he greatly admired during his lifetime for his genre paintings, but he also was known to have originated, at the king’s request, a number of new painting themes, including chaekgeori (paintings of books and scholars’ accoutrements).
In his Imwon Gyeongjae-ji, or Treatise on the Management of Forests and Gardens, Seo Yugu (1764– 1845) wrote, “my family for a long time owned a painting by Kim Hongdo representing a hunting scene. Painted on an eight-panel, folding screen, the scene depicted hunters chasing animals in a vast wilderness; it was so vividly painted that hunters and hunted alike all seemed as if alive. Kim Hongdo considered this screen to be his masterwork. He mentioned that although many painters might copy this work, it would be quite easy to distinguish the copies from his own work.” Textual evidence suggests that Kim Hongdo excelled in this subject and that his paintings were influential in establishing this genre during the late Joseon period. Alas, no existing screens on this subject have yet been confirmed definitely to be by Kim Hongdo himself.
A square, red, relief seal reading Saneung appears in the lower left corner of this screen’s last panel. Saneung was Kim Hongdo’s courtesy name, or ja. If this screen was produced for the court— or for the king, in particular—a court painter was not allow to sign or to impress his seal on the work. Thus, it is likely that the seal was later impressed on this fine screen.
More than seventy Korean hunting screens survive today. Among them, the eight-panel screen in the collection of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, is the most similar in style to the present screen. Considered one of the earliest extant Korean hunting screens, the Leeum screen is datable to the late eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth century. Close examination reveals that both of these screens were done by court painters who were heavily influenced by Kim Hongdo. In particular, the style of the landscape and the depiction of the figures in the two screens share many similarities, even though the Leeum screen includes particular scenes that are absent from this painting and the composition and motifs in its right half show differences from this work. The style of this screen’s landscape elements also recall those of Kim Hongdo’s contemporaries Yi Inmun (1745–1821) and Kim Deuksin (1754–1822), who were fellow court painters. In fact, Yi and Kim received high marks in the special court-painter examinations of 1812, when “Manchus hunting” was included among the painting-examination topics.
Among the few related Korean screens in the West is an eight-panel, folding screen representing the hunt in the collection of the British Museum, London (2000,0610,0.1), which the museum curators have dated to the late nineteenth century. Although it shows some similarities to the present screen, the British Museum screen is less meticulously painted and lacks the present screen’s courtly flavor.
This painting was formerly in the collection of Dr. Kathleen J. Crane (1927–1987), an American Methodist missionary who served in Korea for thirty-five years, from 1952 to 1987. While teaching English and journalism at Ewha Womans University in Seoul for thirty-one years, she fostered interest in Korean art, culture, and people and dedicated her life to furthering her understanding of and appreciation for Korean art and culture.
Meticulously painted in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century by a court painter and employing the finest materials of the day—silk, mineral pigments, and gold—this majestic portrayal of a hunting scene ranks among the masterworks of Korean painting. In excellent condition, this screen, though not previously published, has an enviable provenance and sheds valuable light on a heretofore little-studied subject of late-Joseon painting: the hunting expedition and its connections to both Chinese imperial hunting expeditions and to pictorial documentations of such. Virtually unique among the finest Korean paintings collected in the West, this magnificent screen well reflects both the high quality of late Joseon court paintings and the essence of the painting tradition established by Kim Hongdo.
Myongji University, Seoul
Robert D. Mowry
Harvard Art Museums, Emeritus and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s