Artist profile: Shin Saimdang

Artist profile: Shin Saimdang


The Google Doodle for Shin Saimdang brought this Korean artist (1504–1551) to my attention. She painted botanically-correct plants and insects, and the way she fits into Korean culture is interesting.

The Google Doodle
The Google Doodle

Saimdang is one of her pen-names; her real name was Inseon. She was a calligrapher, poet, writer, embroiderer, and painter, although she is most noted for being the mother of the famous Confucian scholar Yulgok. She died at age forty-seven, when he was fifteen, and is credited with educating him so well that he went on to kick ass on all his civil service exams, even the optional ones.

Shin’s upbringing was highly unconventional. At a time when Korea’s Confucian culture demanded women leave their homes at marriage to be (only) Good Wives and Wise Mothers, Shin experienced education far beyond what a woman would normally have. She was the eldest of five daughters, and her grandfather decided to invest his resources in her as if she had been a boy (as he had done for her mother, also). Her husband, Commander Yi Wonsu, allowed her to take care of her parents after their marriage.

It was this unique situation, along with high social status and servants, that allowed her to raise seven children, several of whom became civil servants and artists. It might be considered ironic that being treated like a boy in her youth resulted in Korean culture remembering her as a “model of Confucian ideals” and the “face of Korean motherhood”.

She became the first woman to be printed on South Korean money in 2009; this bill, and another with Yulgok’s portrait, features some of her paintings.

Below are the few artworks I could find on English websites. Her insects are stellar; contemporary legend goes that chickens would mistake her painted insects for a real ones and peck at them. (Titles are descriptive only.)

Insects, melons, and rodents
Insects, melons, and rodents
detail of the butterfly
detail of the butterfly
Insects and eggplants
Insects and eggplants
Butterflies
Butterflies
Plants with insects (including a praying mantis)
Plants with insects (including a praying mantis)
Folding screen
Folding screen

Links for Shin Saimdang:

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