‘Korean Man’ makes Korea debutPeter Paul Rubens’s “Korean Man” is the first known work of art by a Western artist depicting an image of Korea. If the man in the drawing actually is Korean, it would serve as visual evidence that could rewrite the historical record of Korean contact with Europe. How Rubens could have met a Korean in the Dutch port city of Antwerp in 1617 is a mystery, and many historians doubt that it actually happened.
In the 17th century, the Joseon Dynasty had sealed its borders to outsiders and forays overseas by its citizens were rare. No record exists of Koreans visiting Europe at the time.
Moreover, Rubens’s drawing is a work of art ― it exists in a world of staged reality and fakery. Many of his paintings depict mythical figures like Ulysses and icons like the Virgin Mary, but no one supposes that he actually laid eyes on them.
Over the last decade, historians have surmised that the man in Rubens’s drawing is Nicolas Trigault, the French missionary dispatched to China who in January 1617 spent time with Rubens in Antwerp. Others speculate that Rubens, as a court painter, might have been able to obtain a Korean costume through his diplomatic connections and put it on a Western model.
A number of historians have pointed out that the man pictured has features in common with European models Rubens used in other works, suggesting that the subject was a Caucasian.
But other aspects of the drawing suggest that the man is not European. Rubens sketched a little boat in the background, symbolizing that the sitter had arrived from a faraway land.
Still other experts have found records of a man named “Antonio Corea” settling in Italy after he was brought to Venice by a merchant named Francesco Carleti. Corea, according to some documents, was a Korean who was taken to Japan as a war prisoner, then sold at a slave market and taken to India, where Carleti acquired him. The stories positing how a Korean might have ended up in Antwerp in 1617 go on.
The mystery surrounding Rubens’s drawing led its commercial value to skyrocket.
In 1983 “Korean Man” was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, for ?324,000 (670 million won or $564,000) at auction in London. At the time, it was the most ever paid for a drawing. The sale also spurred immense public interest in Rubens’s drawings, which, along with works by fellow Flemish artists Anthony Van Dyke and Jacob Jordaens, go on display at the Hangaram Museum in Seoul today. The show is titled “Rubens-Van Dyke Drawing Exhibition.” “Korean Man” is included in the exhibition, its first time on display here.
Flanders, the Flemish homeland, which now lies in parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, celebrated its artistic heyday during the Baroque period (1600-1750), a time of relative peace for the region. Close attention to detail, bright colors and technical mastery, particularly in working with oil paints, mark the Flemish style of that time. Rubens, who excelled in every branch of painting and drawing, from portraiture to vague allegorical subjects, was at the top of the artistic hierarchy in early-17th-century Antwerp, a Catholic stronghold in the southern Netherlands against Protestants in the north who had rebelled against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs.
For nearly a century the Flemish school was dictated by Rubens’s style. His work, often summed up as vibrant and monumental, was a mixture of Flemish tradition and the influence of Italian masters like Titian, Michaelangelo and Raphael.
Van Dyke, the other artist on whom the show focuses, is probably one of the least-known of Rubens’s proteges.
Van Dyke, an English court painter who began his career as Rubens’s chief assistant, was known for painting portraits of men with short, pointed beards and fancy costumes. These attributes became the artist’s trademarks, and that style of beard is now known as a Van Dyke.
An interesting aspect of the Flemish sketches is how these painters viewed their drawings as separate bodies of work instead of treating them as preliminary studies. This practice might originate from the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, which brought Flemish artists to prominence and dominated European tastes for a century.
by Park Soo-mee
“Rubens-Van Dyke Drawing Exhibition” runs through Feb. 8 at Hangaram Museum in Seoul Arts Center. For more information call (02) 580-1300.
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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