You would think that a painter who has a large museum named for him (The Gyeomjae Jeong Seon Memorial Museum), created a painting that is identified as one of the National Treasures of South Korea and changed the way nature was painted in the Orient would be someone more of us Westerners would know. Jeong Seon and his pen name was Gyeomjae (humble study), may be new to many of us but his contributions to the art world are timeless.
Unfortunately, there's very little available information about the man himself. What's available online is both repetitive and somewhat contradictory. (The Wikipedia article on this famous artist does not cite any sources and tends to contain information that contradicts information included in materials written in Korea.) The museum, which is named in his honor and houses many of his works, has a website. Unfortunately, they used pictures for all of their Korean language text, leaving no way for this North Carolina gal to translate the material. The Wikipedia entry included this section of a larger work entitled “Taking a rest after reading books” as possibly being a self-portrait of the artist.
Jeong Seon was born in 1676 and died in 1759. A Korean newspaper, announcing an exhibition of Jeong's work on the 250th anniversary of his death, stated that Jeong was born into a noble family. The authors of his Wikipedia page tell a different story. They say that he was born to a family of modest means and an aristocratic neighbor discovered the young man and recommended him to the court. Jeong become a government official and served as the local magistrate three times; which would seem to suggest that his beginnings may have not been as humble as portrayed on Wiki.
At 37, Jeong was already the preeminent painter of his time, in part due to his 14-page catalogue of paintings of Mount Kumgang, which he released the year before. Mount Kumgang is one of the most well-known mountains in what is present-day North Korea. It was also one of Jeong's favorite themes. He would paint the beautiful mountains at least 100 times (around 100 of these works survive). His love of the region inspired other artists to visit and paint the area and would lead to the development of maps of the mountains.
Jeong was an innovator. Before the Jingyeong Era, a 125-year period during the Joseon period (1675-1800), Korean art was significantly influenced by Chinese art and had very little identity of its own. The influential Chinese “Southern School” was not a painting genre that could hold up an individual or group as their leader. Many of painters of the Southern school were scholars and bureaucrats who painted in their retirement. Their art was generally done with one ink color and contained expressive brushstrokes. Their paintings often contained themes of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar (painting, calligraphy, music, and games of skill and strategy). Their works were generally landscapes which usually featured men in retirement or travelers who were admiring the scenery or immersed in culture. The Southern School was a bit disjointed and was perhaps already beginning to trend away from the more formal and traditional techniques of the Northern School and with the professional artists of the time.
Before Jeong, most Korean landscape artists based their paintings on Chinese murals. He didn't want to copy what the Chinese were doing. He wanted to focus on his own country's culture and native beauty. He painted the mountains by sitting outside and looking at them. Jeong would found the true-view landscape painting style almost 200 years before the Europeans began painting en plein air (in the open air). His realistic depictions of the Korean landscape provided Koreans with pride in their own country and Korean artists begin to take their place within the art world as the Golden Age of Korean painting began.