This portrait was painted in about 1930—when the country was being run as a colony of Japan—by the artist Choe Gwangik. Choe was born in 1891 and studied in Japan before earning his living as a portrait painter. He settled down in Kwangju, South Cholla province, where he died in 1970. The painting was given to the Asian Art Museum as a gift by the artist’s son.
The scholar wears a top hat (made of horse hair) and an informal robe characteristic of the late Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Confucian values had instilled a love of virtue and modesty in men of the upper class, hence the clothing styles were plain and simple.
Choe Gwangik attempted to combine traditional and modern stylistic elements. The subtlety of shading, a convincingly realistic effect, reveals Choe’ s familiarity with Western painting techniques. After Choe returned to Korea in 1930 from Japan, where he had been trained, he focused on painting portraits of famous historical and legendary figures. Choe continued into the twentieth century the long tradition of painting commemorative portraits, which were intended to express reverence for ancestors’ spirits and teachings. He attempted to modify this attitude toward traditional portraits by integrating his awareness of Western techniques.