The present publication accompanied a small but exquisite exhibition on Rubens’s so-called Man in Korean Costume of 1617 in the J. Paul Getty Museum whose goal was to establish, one: whether the drawing actually depicts a Korean man in a Korean costume, which in Rubens’s time would have been of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) and, two: where Rubens would have seen such a man since this kingdom had no diplomatic relations with the West until the nineteenth century. Rubens’s study likely represents the earliest rendering of a Korean costume by a Western artist. Since Los Angeles has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, the local interest in the drawing was tremendous.
While the man Rubens portrays in the Getty drawing represents a more average citizen, the additional four related portraits in the exhibition were of Jesuit missionaries in luxurious silk robes who had traveled to China. Three are of the well documented missionary Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628) from Douai, known in two almost identical drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. The location of a third drawing of Trigault, formerly in the collection of Ludwig Burchard, is unknown; it therefore was included only in the etching after it by Captain William Baillie (1723-92), there identified as the Siamese Ambassador (not illustrated in the publication).
Continuing the theme of Jesuit missionaries in Chinese costume, the third drawing in the exhibition, lent by the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, shows an unidentified Jesuit (possibly the German Jesuit missionary Johann Terrenz Schreck). The Stockholm and Morgan Library drawings were exhibited as either by Rubens or Van Dyck. As a special treat the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, lent Rubens’s oil sketch for his large altarpiece of the Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier, painted ca. 1617-18 for the Antwerp Jesuit church (also in Vienna), which includes a man in the crowd of listeners and afflicted who is based on the Getty drawing.
As mentioned above, the focus of the exhibition was on the ‘Koreanness’ of the man in the Getty drawing. His features indicate that he is Asian but they do not provide enough evidence to be able to identify him as Korean; the costume does not accurately reproduce that of a Korean man of the Joseon dynasty. Certainly the exhibition made clear that more recent identifications of the man with either one of two Koreans traveling in Europe in the early seventeenth century, including the freed slave Antonio Corea, are highly unlikely. Stephanie Schrader assembled a trove of early maps, travel diaries and Korean dress in search of possible sources for Rubens. Her detailed labels were exceptionally informative and appreciated (unfortunately not included in the catalogue). Since the Koreans only had outside contact with China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it is possible that Korean costumes were exchanged when representatives visited Beijing three times a year. These costumes then might have been brought back to Europe. In this context, the travel reports preserved from Dutch seafaring merchants such as Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario to East- or Portuguese India of 1596 or Jan de Bry’s India Orientalis of 1599, which borrows from the earlier publication, should be mentioned. Linschoten’s text includes Chinese costume studies that later appeared in De Bry. It might be of interest to note that Rubens owned De Bry’s book. The importance of the trade with the Far East and the wealth it brought to Antwerp is stressed by Christine Göttler in her essay “The Place of the ‘Exotic’ in Early-Seventeenth-Century Antwerp.” She remarks how Carolus Scribanius (1561-1629) identified the Jesuits as the primary force that transformed Antwerp into a model city of the (Christian) world (92).
Also in the exhibition was Matteo Ricci’s Christian Expedition to China(De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas) where he describes the Jesuit mission in China. Trigault translated it into Latin while traveling to Europe (Augsburg, 1615). The Getty Research Institute lent the first European atlas of China from 1655 by the Jesuit cartographer Martino Martini (1614-1661) who traveled there in the 1640s; it included seventeen hand-colored engravings and etchings of important Chinese city maps.
Of special interest were three Korean silk dresses lent by the National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul, from the tomb of the military officer Byeonsu (1447-1524), discussed in the catalogue essay by Kim Young-Jae, senior curator at the museum. They included an outer coat or dapho with short sleeves mostly worn over an inner coat with long sleeves or cheollik seen in two examples. Bodice and skirt of the latter are sewn together at the waist. In Young-Jae’s opinion (p. 37) Rubens’s costume does resemble Early Joseon attire yet is an imaginative interpretation of Korean costume. Even the cloth headband the man is wearing instead of a horsehair manggeon and a square-shaped horsehair banggeon, worn primarily indoors, deviates from traditional attire. The exhibition ended with three fine, large eighteenth-century Korean Joseon dynasty portraits and a mixed media work by the Korean artist Kim Tae Soon, The Spirit of Joseon, 2006.
On March 15, 2013, an interdisciplinary symposium Crossing Borders, Drawing Boundaries: Contextualizing Peter Paul Rubens’s Man in Korean Costume took place at the Getty Research Institute to analyze “the various misunderstandings that arose when Europeans and Asians encountered one another in the early modern period.” The speakers were Mayu Fujikawa who elaborated on the exotic figures represented in the frescoes in the Sala Regia of the Quirinal Palace, Rome, and Rubens’s Man in Korean Costume. Liam Brockey discussed the “Society of Jesus and the Use of Silk in Early Modern Asia.” He explained that Trigault owned no less than five silk costumes at a time when his order was preaching Confucian simplicity. The latter must have brought them with him from China where they were worn by Confucian scholars to entice new recruits for his missionary work. Most critical of Rubens’s rendering was John Vollmer in his analysis of the costume the man was wearing. He pointed out how much it differed from the traditional Korean garment and that the curly hair was most un-Korean. It should be straight and usually gathered in a topknot. Claudia Swan’s contribution dealt with “Ornament and Identity in Early Modern Northern Europe.” David Kang spoke about “The Arrival of the West and its Impact on Korea: Nationalism and the Word Corea”, while Burglind Jungmann, professor of Korean art history at UCLA, discussed “The Confrontation of Joseon Painters with European Concepts of Illusionism.”