The fashion for these type of screens may have begun with King Chongjo’s (reigned 1776–1800) stated preference for paintings showing scholar’s books. Artist Yi Eungnok specialized in chaekkeori, suggesting that there was a considerable demand for such pieces.
Scholar-officials were in the top class of Joseon (1392–1910) society. As the educated elite, they would have surrounded themselves with the products of learning, although with moderation. Books included Confucian classics, commentaries, genealogies referring to one’s own family history, as well as personal writings and letters.
The owners of these paintings were not necessarily scholars themselves. Possibly they were commissioned as a sign of respect for the literati. On the other hand, they may have been done as a way of emulating that lifestyle, much like today’s consumer products convey notions of class distinction and prestige.
The shelves depict not only books, but also brushes, ink sticks, inkstones, rolled up scroll paintings, ancient bronzes, ceramics, and other treasured possessions. The artist has created a sense of depth in the painting by adding Western techniques of perspective—for example, in the way each shelf appears to recede into the background. Painted screens, in addition to being works of art, fulfilled many practical functions in the home such as dividing space and cutting drafts. Screens also provided a focus or a backdrop to the person sitting in front of them.