Bamboo through the Four Seasons

Overall view of screen

Winter: panels 7 (right) and 8 (left)

Autumn: panels 5 (right) and 6 (left)

Summer: panels 3 (right) and 4 (left)

Spring: panels 1 (right) and 2 (left)

To save your search or Lightbox, log in or create an account

Bamboo through the Four Seasons, mid 18th century
Alternate Title: Ink Bamboo (Mukjuk-to)
, Screen
18th century
Chosôn dynasty, 1392-1910
Creation Place: Korea
Eight-panel folding screen; ink on paper; with two seals of the artist reading "Su-un" and "Ka-san-ûng"
Overall mounting: 165 x 513.2 cm (64 15/16 x 202 1/16 in.)
paintings proper: 81.4 x 48.8 cm (32 1/16 x 19 3/16 in.)
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Ernest B. and Helen Pratt Dane Fund for the Acquisition of Oriental Art, Richard Norton Memorial Fund
, 2000.232
Korean folding screens often have six panels, like those painted in Japan; more characteristically, however, Korean screens boast eight, ten, or even twelve panels. In some cases, a Korean screen may feature a single, unified composition that spreads across all its panels; in other instances--such as this one--each panel is conceived as an individual painting.

Representing bamboo through the four seasons, this eight-panel screen is meant to be "read" by the viewer from right to left. The first two paintings, at the far right, depict newly sprung shoots and fresh stalks of bamboo emerging from the ground in spring. The next pair of images display lush, hearty stalks of bamboo enduring the strong winds and warm sun of summer. The relative sparseness, dry ink tones, and overlapping mist visible in the next two paintings convey characteristics of the autumn months. The last pair of images, at the far left, which depict old, thick, broken stalks of bamboo with hints of new stalks in one painting and bamboo branches heavily laden with snow in the other, complete the cycle with the winter season. Though the paintings lack inscriptions and signatures, two red, square seal impressions at the upper left corner of the far--left panel identify two sobriquets of the artist Yu Tôk-chang (1675-1765) and thus reveal the creator of this masterful work of art.

A follower of the famous Korean bamboo-painting master Yi Chông (1554-after 1626), Yu Tôk-chang was one of the most prominent literati artists of the Chosôn dynasty (1392-1910). Like their Koryô-dynasty (918-1392) predecessors, both Yi and Yu took inspiration from the work of Chinese literati painters of the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. Their paintings thus tend to resemble literati paintings by early Chinese masters, rather than works produced by their Chinese contemporaries. In this screen, however, Yu departs from the Chinese model and exhibits the distinctly Korean style of bamboo painting he learned from Yi Chông: the two tones of ink used to starkly distinguish fore-and background subjects; the angular mists that abruptly interrupt a scene; and the thick stumps of bamboo with sharp, broken edges.

Bamboo painting was extremely popular among the literati, perhaps because of its association with the so-called Four Gentlemen--plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo. All four of these botanical subjects, which readily lend themselves to depiction with calligraphic brushwork, are said to embody the virtues to which Confucian scholars aspired, such as integrity, purity, and strength in the face of adversity. So important was the ability to paint bamboo that in the fifteenth century it outranked even landscape painting in the official examinations for Korea's royal painting academy.
Stephan Wolohojian, ed., Harvard Art Museum Handbook, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 2008), p. 109

Exhibition History
Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, and Bamboo: Botanical Motifs and Symbols in East Asian Painting, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 07/06/2002 - 01/05/2003
A Compelling Legacy: Masterworks of East Asian Painting, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/24/2004 - 03/20/2005
Cultivating Virtue: Botanical Motifs and Symbols in East Asian Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/08/2006 - 04/08/2007
Re-View: S228-230 Arts of Asia, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/31/2008 - 11/23/2008