Long Misidentified, Century-Old Painting About Longevity Gets New Life in South Korea

Long Misidentified, Century-Old Painting About Longevity Gets New Life in South Korea

Much about the painting known as Sea, Cranes, and Peaches remains cloaked in mystery: the exact date of its creation, for one, as well as the identity of its maker and the occasion for its commission. But this much has become clear about the radiant work, which is currently on view at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul after extensive conservation efforts: it has lived a long, strange life, variously misunderstood, ignored, and admired.

Now enjoying a star turn in the capital, the screen painting has spent decades in Ohio. Its owner is the Dayton Art Institute, which received it as a gift in 1941 from Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, the radio journalist who reported for CBS during World War II. She told the DAI that her late uncle, Charles C. Goodrich, of the Goodrich tire fortune, rebuilt his drawing room to display the piece, which is more than 24 feet long, when he owned it. The DAI catalogued it as Japanese, but when the art historian Sherman Lee visited the museum in the late 1950s, he decided it was Chinese, from the 16th or 17th century, and described it as “not important as a painting—handsome—not many around.”

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The work was shown in Dayton for stretches, but its poor condition consigned it to storage in recent decades, as Peter L. Doebler, the DAI’s curator of Asian art, recounts in an essay published as part of a recent symposium devoted to it. However, in 2007, a University of Tokyo team photographed it for a book on Chinese paintings in the United States, which is where the Japanese researcher Misato Ido spotted it. He decided something was amiss. In 2017, Ido traveled to Dayton with the South Korean scholar Soojin Kim, and they examined the work. Based on its size, materials, technique, and iconography, the pair concluded that it originated not in Japan or China, but Korea. They dated it to around the end of the Joseon Dynasty in the early 20th century, suspecting it was associated with the ruling court.

The work, made of silk, pigment, and gold leaf, “depicts the world of the immortals with flowing waves topped by peach trees, bamboo, and pine trees with six white cranes carousing among them,” Kim writes in an essay of her own. It is an elegant, action-packed composition with some of the birds boldly stretching their wings. Its gold leaf—applied in hundreds of tiny squares—glows. The presence of that medium is highly unusual for Korean art of the time, but a similarly gilded screen, at the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii, has been identified as coming from the Joseon court.

"Sea, Cranes, and Peaches," early 20th century, Korean, colors on silk, gold leaf, 98 in. x 307 in.

Before conservation: Sea, Cranes, and Peaches, early 20th century, Korean, colors on silk, gold leaf, 88 in. x 289 in. Click to enlarge.
Courtesy Dayton Art Institute

While pictures of birds and water were popular in East Asia for centuries, the items that provide the work’s title (Haehakbandodo, in Korean) were among the longevity symbols favored in art made by Joseon leaders. In particular, the magical bando peach was believed to ripen once every 3,000 years, making it a potent symbol of everlasting life.

The fresh identification of the painting has also, in a sense, extended its own longevity. The DAI subsequently applied for a grant from the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, a South Korean agency that helps to restore artworks in collections outside the country. Funding came through, allowing the piece to return to Seoul some 100 years after it likely left. There, specialists moved its silk surface from six panels to twelve, as it had originally (before being remounted at some point); excised later painting applied to disguise damage; and cleaned it. (The resulting show was organized by curator Paik Eungyeong and assistant curator Chu Hana.)

The work can also be navigated online, but those stopping by in-person have been rewarded with a souvenir pastry that is shaped and painted to resemble (and that tastes remarkably like) a little peach. It is a “means to wish the visitors good health in the era of corona pandemic,” the museum said.

After the show closes on February 10, Sea, Cranes, and Peaches will journey back to the DAI. Following the revelations about the piece, and the care applied to it, “I think it easily rises to the top 10 Asian artworks in Dayton’s collection,” Doebler, the DAI curator, said.

There is also, for Doebler, a larger lesson that can be drawn from the long process that led to identifying the work correctly. As he writes in his essay, “Perhaps in some way it can remind us that no matter where we may go, or what we may go through, we can always find our way home.”

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