The Korean ch’aekkado book screen at the Musée Guimet in Paris

Of the various kinds of Korean decorative painting which were popular towards the end of the Chosŏn period (1392-1897), the “book screen” is the genre that most embodies the spirit and aspirations of the period’s literati elite. 


Coree_paravent_Chaekkori complet_

(fig. 1) ch’aekkŏri painted screen in six panels, watercolor on paper, H. 135 cm 42.5 cm wide (per panel), Chosŏn period, 18th-19th centuries, Musée Guimet, Paris,
© Musée Guimet.

Of the various kinds of Korean decorative painting which were popular towards the end of the Chosŏn period (1392-1897), the “book screen” is the genre that most embodies the spirit and aspirations of the period’s literati elite. The six-panelled screen (LUF 015) (fig. 1) currently housed by the Musée Guimet in Paris is a good example. Like numerous other works in the collection, it is titled simply ch’aekkŏri, a phrase that translates as “books and objects” and merely describes a type of still-life that was used to decorate the interiors of private studies and scholars’ retreats. Ch’aekkŏri were produced in three distinct formats: “ch’aekkŏri with shelves,” “ch’aekkŏri with isolated objects” (fig. 2), and “stacked ch’aekkŏri” (fig. 4). The first type is usually called simply “ch’aekkado.” Since the screen with six panels (LUF 015) is the only “ch’aekkŏri with shelves” in the museum, we will refer to it here as “the Musée Guimet ch’aekkado” to distinguish it from works with the same title held in the museum’s collection.The Musée Guimet screen, which is rather modest in size (135.5 cm high with six panels each 42 cm wide) is restrained in its style. The piece of furniture represented consists of three levels of stacked open compartments, eighteen in all. Two-thirds of these contain books—sometimes exclusively so, sometimes books with other objects. By no means mere decoration, this screen deploys a favorite iconographic repertory of Chosŏn literati, one that reveals their predilections and aspirations, allowing us to deduce some more general characteristics of their society.


Books held pride of place in this Neo-Confucian society as icons of social distinction and power, all the more so as the study of Chinese classics was virtually the only means of social advancement. Access to high-status public appointments was determined by national competitions (Kwagŏ), although the 18th and 19th centuries witnessed challenges to neo-Confucianism, which was considered too rigid. A new, more pragmatic approach emerged, namely sirhak (School of practical learning) movement, and its pukhak (School of northern learning).
From the second half of the 18th century, Korean emissaries to Beijing had an opportunity to view the city built by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) with their own eyes. Rather than wallow in nostalgia for the Ming era (1368-1644) and turn their backs on the new dynasty founded by the so-called “barbarian” Manchus, these intellectuals were determined to spread the advanced culture of the Manchus in hopes of improving economic conditions in Chosŏn Korea. Much as encyclopedias played an essential role for the Enlightenment in Europe, bringing new information and knowledge, so did Chinese books seized upon by Korean envoys who spared no expense acquiring them in Beijing.

Yi Hyŏng-nok

(fig. 2) Yi Hyŏng-nok (1808-ap.1874), ch’aekkado, before 1864, ink and watercolor on paper, 154.5 cm x 38.5 cm (per panel), National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Envoys were not the only ones hungry for Chinese books in Korea. The country’s ruler, King Chŏngjo (r. 1776-1800), was as well. Indeed, he originated the fashion for paintings focused on depictions of books, and made his reasons explicit in his own writings (Hongjaejŏnsŏ). His intention was to prevent his contemporaries from reading “unhealthy” books instead of classical texts, and he had the only the latter represented in his ch’aekkado. With this purpose in mind, he commissioned a ch’aekkado and had it installed in his room, going so far as to replace a hallowed object: a painting of the sun, the moon, and the five hills (Irwŏlobongdo) that symbolized the presence of the king. The official inauguration of the new image and the king’s proud explanation of its purpose to his subjects was a political gesture that to some extent compelled ch’aekkado painting’s rapid development beyond the royal palace in the homes of his subjects. The great popularity of these ch’aekkŏri among the governing classes (yangban) was such that the scholar Yi Kyu-sang (1727-1799) wrote in his book, Ilmongko, that not a single nobleman could be found whose walls were not adorned with a painting of books.

In fact, the classification of ch’aekkŏri into the three types described above was also linked to social class. Since books were not accessible to commoners, screen-paintings of books were favored by the aristocracy. However, with the rise of a wealthy middle class (chungin) at the end of the Chosŏn dynasty, the theme had become widely accepted in society and even spread among the common people. Court painters, most of whom belonged to the chungin class and worked both at the court and outside it, were responsible for the transmission of pictorial models from court to aristocracy to ordinary people. Some commoners who became well-off dreamed of becoming yangban themselves and imitated their tastes. These paintings, made fashionable by the king and used to decorate the royal palace, were for a long time mistakenly called folk art, or minhwa, but recent research has demonstrated that they in fact belong to decorative court painting, kungjung changsikhwa. A photograph (fig. 3) has survived that illustrates how a ch’aekkado was exhibited in the royal palace.

 Lee Tae jin professor

(fig. 3) Professor Lee Tae-jin has shown that this scene was photographed in the Kwanmun’gak of the Kŏnch’ŏng-kung at Kyŏngbok Palace.

While it is impossible to establish a frontier between popular painting and the court on the basis of anonymous paintings, it is nevertheless evident that “ch’aekkŏri with shelves” were not likely to belong to commoners, who would not have possessed the appropriate space for them in their homes. The appearance of “stacked ch’aekkŏri” can be traced to the taste for ch’aekkado in the more limited spaces of homes belonging to commoners who also cherished aspirations of success and happiness. It was precisely the diversity of circumstances among the various social classes that permitted diversity and originality to flourish subsequently in the production of ch’aekkŏri.

Collections of Antiquities

The emissaries of the Chosŏn collected more than books on their trips to China. The streets of Liulichang in Beijing were home to antique stores as well as book shops. Collecting Chinese ceramics and archaic bronzes reproduced during the Ming and Qing periods was another ambition of literati who sought to cultivate their taste for elegance. Yi Tŏk-mu (1741-1793) et Pak Chi-wŏn (1737-1805) even came armed with a copy of the 1749 catalogue of imperial bronzes (Xiqing gujian) that had been commissioned by the emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795). The Musée Guimet book screen depicts two incense burner tripods, an element from the celebrated literati motif of “the three friends of incense.” Other objects associated with literati culture, such as “the four treasures of the scholar,” are also present.

In addition to archaic bronzes, images of ceramics are another essential feature of ch’aekkado. The style most favored for these was “guan/ge,” a type of stoneware with a crackled celadon glaze in the style of the Song dynasty (960-1279). Intellectuals considered pompous the blue and white and glazed porcelains that were creations of their own time. This return to an antique and somewhat austere style of Chinese ceramics was very popular under the Qing and perfectly suited to the tastes of Chosŏn literati, becoming the ceramic most likely to be depicted in ch’aekkŏri. Pak Chi-wŏn went so far as to recommend acquiring those objects with the most pronounced craquelure. Chinese bronzes and stoneware with a crackled celadon glaze both appear in the two self-portraits of Kim Hong-do (1745-1806?), the most famous painter of the Chosŏn period, another confirmation of their popularity in Korea at this time. As for the Musée Guimet screen, it depicts no less than three examples of this type of ceramic.

Plants shown in association with ceramics are another essential element of ch’aekkŏri. Yi Tŏk-mu wrote that a spray of flowers placed in a bronze vessel or in a glazed and crackled stoneware vase will last longer. Many images testify to a real popularity of stoneware ceramics for this purpose. In the Musée Guimet screen, for example, a branch of peach blossom appears in a blue vase decorated with clouds and a golden dragon. More discreetly, the tip of a branch of peony is visible at the lower edge of the fifth panel, cut off by a change in the placement, from which it can be inferred that the original screen comprised at least eight panels. One of these must presumably have represented a vase (stoneware with a crackled glaze?) with the rest of the branch. As for the peony stem, the front of the leaf is dark green while the back a pale green; its typical color and form appear in various paintings, for example: in the upper part of the first panel of the ch’aekkado in fig. 2, suggesting the use of a sketch as a model.
Further along, a white compote bowl contains a citrus fruit and two pomegranates, fertility symbols easily identified by their many seeds, as shown in the one that is cut open. Later, such symbols of good fortune proliferate in “stacked ch’aekkŏri.” According to Bang Byŏng-sŏn, these images may well represent ceramic pomegranates, a common production at the time.

Ch’aekkŏri paravent à huit panneaux

(fig.4) Ch’aekkŏri, Books and Scholar's Accoutrements, eight-panel folding screen, late 19th century, colors on paper, 49.5 cm x 27 cm (per panel), Kim Sejong collection.

Lastly, close examination yields that the majority of the objects depicted in these screen paintings were not of Korean manufacture. Neither celadon from the Koryŏ period (918-1392) nor the white porcelain or punch’ŏng of Chosŏn were represented in these Korean screens. Yet, in a poem from his Songp’a sujak collection, Chŏng Yak-yong describes a Narcissus flower, another bloom highly prized for representation in a ch’aekkado (see the fifth panel in fig. 2), placed in a Koryŏ vase. This indicates how the still-life screen was a kind of Korean cabinet of curiosities filled with chinoiseries.

Paravent à la peau de léopard

(fig. 5) Leopard skin screen, watercolor on paper, 128 cm x 358 cm, Leeum Museum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul. © Leeum Museum.

The style of Yi Hyŏng-nok

While collecting antique Chinese objects from the Ming and Qing periods was very much in vogue among the Chosŏn-era, the Musée Guimet ch’aekkado does not necessarily represent a collection that ever existed in fact. The resemblances between objects in this genre of painting (fig. 1 and 2) invites the assumption that painters referred to sketchbooks for images of rare objects, or simply for convenience. Objects which stylistically resemble those represented in the Musée Guimet screen appear in other works, especially those of Yi Hyŏng-nok (1808- after 1883), known as the best painter to have specialized in this genre. Generally, court painters did not sign their decorative paintings, which were often the collective work of a studio. Nevertheless, in the case of ch’aekkado, certain artists, such as Chang Han-jong (1768-1815) and Yi Hyong-nok would discreetly sign their work in one of the seals (first panel of fig. 2), revealing that nine other paintings are also by the hand of the latter.

Ch’aekkado paravent à huit panneaux

(fig. 6) Yi Hyŏng-nok (1808-ap.1874 (1808-c. 1874), Ch’aekkado, eight-panel screen, prior to 1864, ink and watercolor on paper, 140 cm x 468 cm, Leeum Museum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, © Leeum Museum.

Yi Hyŏng-Nok was one of court painters (Chabidaeryŏng hwawŏn), chosen from amongst those already selected by competition, to serve in the Kyujanggak, or royal library. To ensure selection of the most competent and to assure that they remained the best, the king required that the artists be examined regularly. The fact that the theme of ch’aekkŏri was added as an examination subject contributed substantially to the quality of the paintings in this genre. King Chŏngjo’s attachment to this kind of painting is well-illustrated by an episode from 1788, noted in the chronicles known as Naegak illyŏk. Evidently, the king exiled two court painters, Sin Han-p’yong (1726- ?) and Yi Chong-hyŏn (1748-1803) for not electing to paint ch’aekkŏri when they were invited to paint a subject of their own choosing.

With the exception of a pitcher, a cup and a goblet, all the other objects represented in the Musée Guimet ch’aekkado are found in the eight-panel screen by Yi Hyŏng-nok in the Leeum Collection (fig. 6), where they are identical or only slightly modified. The same holds true of his “ch’aekkŏri with isolated objects” in the National Folk Museum of Korea (fig. 2). The use of the same objects in no way guarantees that the screen is by the same painter, although its quality and overall style do not exclude the possibility. The square seal facing the spectator in the fourth panel has not yet been deciphered to yield the name of the artist.

The trompe l’œil Ch’aekkado

Although objects of Chinese manufacture are those most frequently shown, these screens also depict European curiosities, such as the clock seen in the fifth panel of fig. 2 or a pair of glasses (fig 5). But the most significant indication of their modernity is without a doubt the illusionistic treatment of pictorial space. While most prior ch’aekkŏri were painted from a high vantage point on the right side, one-point perspective dominates in the ch’aekkado, its shelves becoming a space in which to explore this Western technique. In point of fact, such open, box-like shelving is not Korean, neither strictly similar to Chinese treasure cabinets (Duobaoge). While Jerome Silbergeld views the genre of ch’aekkŏri as deriving from the studiolo tradition of the Italian Renaissance, Kay E. Black sees their origin more specifically in a painting produced in China of a treasure cabinet, attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian Jesuit missionary and court painter in China.
It is well established that court painters in Korea were capable of mastering Western perspective and trompe l’œil technique during the Chosŏn; and according to one contemporary scholar, Yu Chae-kŏn (1793-1880), used to amuse themselves doing so. In the Musée Guimet screen, the painter employs chiaroscuro increase the sense of depth, darkening the back of the shelf. It is true that nothing floats in this space; everything is solidly place on these shelves. The difference can be seen by comparison with a screen in the Brooklyn Museum in the United States, in which some objects appear to float weightlessly (see also fig.4). The painter of the Musée Guimet screen seems to have been as entirely capable of using Western perspective as Yi Hyŏng-nok, which leads the author to think that the present disorder in the perspective is a result of an incorrect arrangement of the panels caused by the absence of two (or perhaps, though unlikely, four) panels. This possibility merits further research.


In spite of the modest appearance of the Musée Guimet ch’aekkado, its uncluttered space bears witness to the thoughtful composition of its books and objects. It avoids all ostentatious effects potentially equated with nouveau-riche taste, something the Korean literati elite was careful to avoid. The Koreans developed this kind of art based on Chinese objects and culture, which they combined with a European perspective tradition to create a singular genre of painting that expressed their values and aspirations.
The Musée Guimet ch’aekkado invites further study of the circulation of objects and artistic practices among Asian countries and between these and Europe through particular objects and methods of presentation, such as trompe l’œil and illusionistic perspective more generally.

The author

Okyang Chae-Duporge is an art historian and associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne as well as a member of the D21A team. She holds a doctorate in the history of art from the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne and has published Lee Ufan, Espaces non-agis (2017), Éditions Cercle d’Art à Paris with its English translation. She is also co-author of a bi-lingual book (in French and Korean) Trésors de Corée - Bulguksa et Seokguram (2016) also published by Éditions Cercle d’Art. She was awarded the Prix culturel France-Corée in 2017. Her research is presently concerned with the circulation of objects and artistic practices, chiefly in Buddhist art, the decorative arts and contemporary art.

Bibliographical references

  • CAMBON Pierre, Tigres de papier, cinq siècles de peinture en Corée, Musée national des arts asiatique-Guimet, Paris, Snoeck, 2015, pp. 56-61.
  • CHAE-DUPORGE Okyang, “La collection de Lee Ufan au musée Guimet: la peinture coréenne décorative de la fin de la dynastie Joseon,” A la croisée de collections d’art entre Asie et Occident, Editions Maisonneuve & Larose hémisphères, Paris, 2019, pp. 39-48.
  • CHUNG Byong-mo et al., Chaesaekhwa, polychrome Painting of Korea - chaekkori and munjado (vol. 3), Sl 3), Dahal media, 2015.
  • KIM Sunglim, CHUNG Byungmo et al., Chaekgeori, the power and pleasure of possessions in Korean painted screens, Séoul, Dahal media, 2017.
  • LEE Ufan and CAMBON Pierre, Nostalgies coréennes-peintures et paravents du XVIIe au XIXe siècle, musée Guimet, Paris, 2001.
Ch’aekkŏri (LUF 015), paravent à six panneaux, époque du Chosŏn, XVIIIe –XIXe siècle, musée Guimet, Paris.   © Okyang Chae-Duporge
April 2022
Historienne d’art et MCF à l’Université de Bordeaux