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Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture

Heo Nanseolheon
2005, by Yun Suknam (Korean, b. 1939)
Mixed media.

Collection of the artist.
Photograph © Yun Suknam.

In this work, Yun Suknam depicts Heo Nanseolheon (1563– 1589), a well-known female poet during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). She is depicted alongside a contemporary female figure—possibly the artist herself—reaching out to Heo with an extended arm. As Yun points out in her artist’s statement nearby, women in traditional Korean society were seldom depicted in portrait paintings. This contemporary portrait of two women from different periods contains several motifs derived from Heo’s writings. The long handscroll filled with text represents Heo’s literary world along with the lotus flowers, a favored motif in Heo’s poems. Lotus plants that grow in mud yet eventually produce beautiful blooms symbolize both Heo’s deep sorrow and enduring beauty. Heo’s poems often reflect her mourning for her unhappy marriage as well as the death of her two children and beloved brother. Not only did she write about her personal life but she also revealed her profound knowledge of classics, which at the time were almost exclusively studied by noblemen.