Painting: Kosakwansudo (The Pondering Scholar)


Kosakwansudo (The Pondering Scholar), Kang Hŭiian,
15th Century, Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

The reign of King Sejong the Great were known as the golden years of Chosŏn Kingdom. During his reign, King Sejong the Great (r. 1418 – 1415 CE) strived to advance technology, literature, linguistics, science, and the arts. This era of progress and openness encouraged scholars, scientists, and artists alike to make advancements in the respective fields. One of the artists of that time, Kang Hŭian (1418 – 1465), is known for his innovative approach to art. His painting, The Pondering Scholar, pioneered Korean art through its bold strokes and unique perspective.

Although Kang was an influential scholar and even working in King Sejong’s famous Chiphyŏnjŏn(Hall of Worthies), he is most well known for this painting, The Pondering Scholar. The Pondering Scholar depicts a Confucian scholar resting on a rock on the bank of a river. The scholar appears to be in deep thought as he stares off into the slow flow of the river.

In order to emphasize this contemplative scholar and his mood, Kang chooses to use several innovative techniques to show a unique perspective. Most Korean paintings at that time emphasized nature’s dominance over man, meaning that artists filled more of the picture frame with nature than human subjects. Thus man appears minuscule against the expanse of nature.

Kang, however, makes the contemplative scholar the focus of this work. First, the scholar’s clothes and face are a white compared to the darker background. Second, the lines and strokes that define the scholar are very definite and straight, while the lines of nature are twisted and random. By using light and differing brush strokes, Kang draws the viewer’s attention to the human subject, something not typically done in Korean paintings. This new perspective encouraged other artists to also change the focus and framing of their own paintings, thus ushering in a new stage in Korean art.