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Shin Saimdang, artist who was ahead of her time

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<span>An installation view of 'Saimdang, Her Garden' exhibition held at the Seoul Museum in Buam-dong, central Seoul / Courtesy of Seoul Museum</span><br /><br />
An installation view of 'Saimdang, Her Garden' exhibition held at the Seoul Museum in Buam-dong, central Seoul / Courtesy of Seoul Museum

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Shin Saimdang's
Shin Saimdang's "Mukrando" (Ink Orchid painting)
Shin Saimdang (1504-1551) is one of the best-known women in Korean history. She was an artist, writer, calligraphist and poet of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

She became the first woman to appear on a Korean banknote and she has been the face everyone sees on the 50,000 won note since 2009.

Despite her splendid talents, the Joseon era was male-dominated under the influence of Confucianism and even Shin's real name is unknown. She is only known as the second daughter of Shin Myeong-hwa, wife of Yi Won-su and mother of Confucian scholar Yi I.

"She is often called Shin In-seon, but there is no evidence," Ahn Jin-woo of Seoul Museum said. "Her name did not make history because she was a woman. While researching for this exhibition, we could speculate that the name In-seon came from a modern biography of Shin for children and became known as her real name. However, no record of her name exists in history."

She started painting at an early age and was supported by her father and grandfather who discovered her artistic talent. She is said to have been proficient at calligraphy and read the Confucian scriptures while being a great painter and embroiderer.

She is mostly known by her penname, Saimdang, which Shin gave herself in honor of Tairen (pronounced Taeim in Korean), the mother of King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty in China. Tairen was known as a good wife and wise mother, following the Confucian regime.

Though many documents portray Shin also as a good wife and wise mother, it is her artwork that speaks the loudest.

Painter of nature

Shin Saimdang's
Shin Saimdang's "Chochungdo" (Grass and Insect painting)
Shin Saimdang's
Shin Saimdang's "Chochungdo" (Grass and Insect painting)
Her passionate spirit inspired many later artists and ongoing SBS drama "Saimdang, Light's Diary," starring top Korean actress Lee Young-ae, is no exception.

In the drama, Seo Ji-yoon, a modern-day art history instructor played by Lee, encounters a variety of ancient paintings, which invites her to explore the life and secrets of Shin Saimdang.

Some of the paintings, such as portraits of a woman similar to Lee, are created for the drama, but some are genuine Shin paintings.

The very paintings, depicting grass and insects delicately and lively, are on display at Seoul Museum's "Saimdang, Her Garden" exhibition.

The exhibit features 15 paintings by Shin from the founder's collection. Fourteen of them are Shin's famous Chochungdo (grass and insect paintings) and the other is Mukrando, a type of ink orchid painting that is typical of literary painting.

The artworks are from the collection of Ahn Byung-gwang, CEO of Union Pharmacy and founder of the Seoul Museum. Ahn, known as an avid art collector, made efforts to gather the folk paintings exuding delicate beauty and organized Shin's exhibit to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the private museum.

Shin's grass and insect paintings are known for their lifelike energy and there is an anecdote of a chicken pecking at Shin's painting, mistaking it for real insects.

Most of the Chochungdo pieces on display are painted on navy paper without outlines. The subject matter focuses on various flowers, plants and bugs that lived around Shin's house. The paintings are very detailed and the object ratio is quite realistic.

Shin had a good understanding of seasonal changes and the paintings reflect a sense of season. The plants and insects were not chosen for aesthetic reasons but matched seasonally. For example, one Chochungdo piece features ground cherry, dendranthema, reeds and a red dragonfly, which all appear during early fall.

The objects painted also have symbolic meanings. A Chochungdo piece of a cockscomb, three butterflies and three dung beetles wish for good marital chemistry and a prosperous governmental career. The cockscomb represents a public post because it looks similar to an official hat, while the butterfly represents conjugal harmony.

The ink orchid painting is displayed to the public for the first time since its appearance on "TV Show Rarities and Masterpieces," a Korean TV show appraising antiques, in 2005.

Ahn was mesmerized by the artistic spirit portrayed in the painting, with skilled use of thick and pale ink, and sought out the original owner for months to persuade him to sell the artwork.

Most of Shin's remaining paintings are colored grass and insect paintings and ink-and-wash paintings are rare.

"It is difficult to trace Shin's paintings because she was a woman and did not have the seal or signature," the museum official said. "Under the Confucian society, her best value was producing Yi I, one of the greatest scholars of the time."

The ink orchid painting is mounted with text by Song Si-yeol, a 17th century Joseon scholar and the pupil of Yi I. Song said the painting makes nature suddenly, as if it is not done by a human.

The exhibit runs until June 11. For more information, visit or call 02-395-0100.

Kwon Mee-yoo


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