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The King and His Court

A line of twenty-seven kings ruled the Joseon dynasty during its 518-year history. Guided by Confucian philosophy, which emphasized personal virtue, a highly ordered system of social rank, and strict adherence to ritual practices, the Joseon court commissioned many works of art for ceremonial and commemorative purposes. Lavish screen paintings formed a backdrop for court rituals and formal occasions. Elaborately illustrated books known as royal protocols documented royal events in great detail. Ranging from imposing works of calligraphy by King Jeongjo (ruled 1776–1800) to the finest ceramics and costumes, the objects on view in this gallery demonstrate the functions and essential characteristics of the art of the Joseon court, as well as the court’s role in shaping Korean art and culture.

Joseon Society

Joseon society was organized according to the strict social hierarchies prescribed by Confucian ideals. The four broad social classes included the nobility, both civilian and military; the middle class, composed of court painters, physicians, and other skilled professionals; commoners (mostly farmers); and the lower class, which included butchers, potters, and slaves. This societal structure contributed to a diverse visual culture, as artists and craftsmen responded to the needs and tastes of different patrons.

The strict segregation of men and women of the middle and upper classes also contributed to artistic diversity. Men and women occupied separate sections of the residential complex and focused on different tasks: men pursued diligent study as a pathway to government office, and women ran the household and raised children. The design and function of furniture, crafts, and utilitarian objects used in men’s and women’s quarters highlight this distinction.

Ancestral Rituals and Confucian Values

Filial piety, respect for one’s parents and ancestors, was an important aspect of Joseon Confucianism. Of the three most important relationships recognized by Confucianism (ruler and subject, parent and child, husband and wife), filial piety resonated most widely, in all levels of society. Ceremonies honoring the long line of deceased Joseon rulers dominated events of state. In private, families worshiped ancestors in their homes and at tomb sites. The successful performance of these rites was thought to ensure an ethically sound society and a secure home. The distinctive ceramic and metal wares produced for these rituals exhibit the simple and austere aesthetic appropriate for solemn occasions. Ritual furnishings and burial goods to be placed in tombs offer further evidence of the importance of devotion to ancestral spirits.

Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty

Although Confucianism was the official state religion of the Joseon dynasty, Buddhism had existed on the Korean peninsula for nearly a millennium when the Joseon dynasty was established, and Buddhist practices continued under Joseon rule, albeit unofficially. Commoners and royals alike performed rituals at certain Buddhist temples and a considerable number of Buddhist sculptures and paintings were either commissioned by the royals or produced in homage to them. The paintings, sculptures, reliquaries, and ritual implements in this gallery attest to the vibrant traditions of Korean Buddhism that survived during the Joseon dynasty.

A rare and monumental Buddhist banner hangs just outside this exhibition in the Museum’s Great Stair Hall. For more than 350 years, it has served as the central object of worship during outdoor celebrations of the Buddha’s birthday or the Yeongsanjae ritual (prayers offered for the deceased on the forty-ninth day after death).

The End of a Dynasty

Although the Joseon court exercised a policy of isolation from the outside world, Western ideas filtered into Korea through diplomatic contact with China and other channels. Elements of Western artistic styles, including single-point perspective, were reflected in Korean paintings as early as the 1700s. After the Joseon regime ratified a treaty with the United States in 1882, visitors from the West began to arrive, mostly diplomats and Protestant missionaries. The Joseon court also promoted its presence internationally by participating in World Expositions. This cultural exchange is evident in the objects in this gallery, from hyperrealistic portraits spurred by the introduction of photography to Western-style tableware and official dress implemented by Emperor Gojong (ruled 1863–1907), who proclaimed the start of the Korean Empire in 1897. The Joseon dynasty officially ended in 1910 with the Japanese occupation of Korea, but many of the cultural values and societal practices developed during the dynasty continue to influence Korean culture today.