Thanks to the generosity of the late Thomas Solley and the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art, we were able to purchase an eight-panel folding screen. It is not only a significant example of Korean art but also a real showstopper. Chaekgeori, or scholar’s screens such as this one, can loosely be described as a still life genre painting suitable for the scholar or any other individual wishing to visually inform others of their erudition, sophistication, and taste. The earliest known Chaekgeori screens date to the late eighteenth century, a time of peace and stability after the destructive
Manchurian and Japanese invasions of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With increased prosperity art patrons and scholars could once again relish the accoutrements of a genteel life. This type of painting continued to enjoy popularity through the mid-twentieth century.
The word Chaekgeori literally means “books and things,” and books, which are displayed in towering stacks on every panel, are certainly the most prominent and important motif in such paintings. Perhaps some of the books here are the Confucian Classics, which all respectable scholars would own and consult. But other objects also populate the screen: fine ceramics, writing brushes, exotic flowers and fruits, butterflies, carp, Buddha’s hand citron, pomegranates, and images of cranes, all of which reference the long-standing vocabulary of wealth and auspicious symbols representing prosperity, longevity, and fecundity.
There are also references to a larger world beyond the boundaries of Asia represented by the inclusion of the round, black eyeglass in the left-most screen. While smoky quartz or glass had been used by the Chinese at an early date to shield their faces and vision, proper eyeglasses were not imported to China until the sixteenth century. Eyeglasses in the East and West are associated with the scholar. Also of note are the Western-style rulers stuck in the brush pots in the two right-most panels. All the objects represented in the screen are not only artifacts of refinement but also of their owner’s worldliness since many of them were priceless imports from China and Japan and, to a lesser degree, the West.
The origins of this kind of genre painting are obscure, but the assemblage of objects and recent scholarship indicate that the ideas are drawn from both the long-established Chinese tradition of paintings referencing the scholar’s study and recently introduced ideas from the West such as antiquarian collecting.
Judith A. Stubbs, PhD
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art