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Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture

Portrait of Oh Myeonghang, 1728–1800
Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)
Ink and colors on silk.

Gyeonggi Provincial Museum, Hyeju Oh Family Collection.
Photograph © Gyeonggi Provincial Museum.

It is rare to have an extant set of full-length and half-length portraits as well as a draft portrait of the same sitter. It is significant here to have three portraits of Oh Myeonghang (1673–1728). Various official and honorary titles of Oh are written on the upper-right corners of the fulllength and half-length portraits. Among them, Hae’eun buwongun (written on the draft portrait as well) is the honorary title that King Yeongjo (reigned 1724–1776) bestowed on Oh when he was appointed as the firstrank Bunmu meritorious official in 1728.

The full-length portrait exhibits a style of portraiture for Joseon officials that became dominant after the seventeenth century: the sitter is slightly facing the right, seated on a chair with both hands hidden in his sleeves. The rank badge with a motif of two cranes signifies Oh’s position as a high-rank civil official. After passing the examinations for civil officials in 1705, Oh quickly ascended the political ranks. When the rebellion against King Yeongjo occurred in 1728, Oh was assigned as the Minister of Military Affairs to lead the military troops. Immediately following the rebellion’s suppression, the king promoted him once again. Unfortunately Oh died a few months later in the ninth month of 1728. These portraits depict the last months of Oh’s life and reveal, in the darkened face, his deteriorating health.