As one of the "Four Gentlemen" of literati painting, the orchid (along with plum blossom, bamboo, and chrysanthemum) embodied the virtues most important within Confucian ideology. The orchid, which flourishes high in the mountains near running streams, was revered in particular for its purity, integrity, and noble character. It was often paired with rocks which, themselves symbols of integrity and endurance, underscored the orchid's virtues, while providing a striking visual counterpoint to the orchid's flowing leaves and delicate blossoms.
Prince Regent Yi Ha-ung [ho Seokpa, Haedong-gosa, Nosok-doin], father of King Kojong (reg 1863-1907), and a powerful political figure, is known for his relaxed style of calligraphy and recognized as Korea's greatest painter of orchids. Yi, who early on emulated the great calligrapher Gim Jong-hui (1786-1856), painted orchids for over fifty years, developing midway a highly personal style of depicting orchids against an unadorned background, with gracefully elongated, sharply pointed leaves. Prince Yi's style, in turn, was emulated by many contemporaries, including the renowned orchid painter Gim Eung-won (1855-1921).
In a calligraphy screen done in his seventieth year, now in the collection of The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, at Harvard University, Prince Yi wrote the following about the orchid:
From days of antiquity, there have been so many who loved the chrysanthemum, the lotus, and the peony. But who understands the orchid? The orchid sprouts from the clear, secluded stream, and its perfume is exotic and refined. Because of this, people love the orchid. I am now seventy years old. It has been over fifty years since I learned to paint orchids, and I have painted them all my life. Even so, I still cannot discern the hidden meaning and energy of the orchid. There are few who can.
This eight-panel screen completed eight years later, at the very end of Prince Yi Ha-ung's life, represents the apotheosis of his achievements as an orchid painter. Done in Prince Yi's singular style, subtle blossoms done in light ink wash are nestled amidst dynamic profusions of elongated leaves. Prince Yi's rocks, heavily weighted by their blackened outlines and lateral accents, anchor the fluid orchids, even as their angular forms enhance the diagonal trajectory of the leaves. Compositionally, the outer paintings frame the three sets of mirrored middle panels, giving the screen an overarching sense of harmony and organic unity.