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Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture

Draft portrait of Lee Sam (verso), 1751
Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)
Ink on colors on paper.

Asian Art Museum, Gift of Arthur J. McTaggart, 1992.203.d.
Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

This draft portrait of Lee Sam (Yi Sam, 1677–1735) depicts Lee’s face and characteristics in a sensitively realistic manner. During the Joseon dynasty, portrait painters believed that faces conveyed the inner spirit of the subject. They considered a realistic depiction of the face to be the most important aspect of portrait-making. Reverse coloring (baechae)—painting on the reverse side to enhance color on the front of the image—was commonly applied to parts of a sitter’s face, showing the great attention that the painters gave to those areas.

The likeness captured in the draft portrait is also well rendered in the finished half-length portrait displayed nearby. (Each step in making both draft and finished portraits is reconstructed in panels displayed just outside this gallery.) The comparison of the draft and finished portraits of Lee Sam reveals the painter’s process, including his experiments: multiple lines drawn on the shoulder area reveal the artist’s corrections, and the white lines indicate his final, presumably accurate choice, as reflected in the finished portrait.