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The Secret of “Korean Man” Painted by Rubens

Posted January. 30, 2004 23:40,   


“A Young Man of Chosun Dynasty ‘Antonio Corea’ Meets with Rubens”

Written by Kwak Cha-seop

159 pages, 8,000 won, Published by Pureunyeoksa

“Korean Man” is painted by Rubens (1577∼1640) who is known as the first western painter focusing on the Korean man.

However, there is no evidence that the man in this picture is a real Korean. The title of the picture was also given later on. In 1983, when the drawing was sold at the highest price of drawing auction at 324,000 pounds (equivalent to 660 million won) at the Christie’s auction house in London, the title was “A Man in Korean Costume.” It then changed to its current title when it moved to the Getty Center in Los Angeles, U.S.A.

If the man in the picture is not Korean, then who on earth is this man? How did Rubens come to draw this man?

With his research on the materials of western art history and the studies on Korean, Italian, and Japanese histories, the author, a professor of history at Busan National University, asserts himself that the man Rubens had drawn must be “Antonio Corea,” who is referred to as the first Korean to enter the European continent.

The reason why the author believes the man in the picture is Korean is because the hat that the man is wearing is an official hat which was mainly used by aristocrats in those days. Also, the clothes he wore was made of chun-rik. Chun-rik is the cloth that was popular regardless of class and gender, from the nobleman to the common people. The author estimated it must be the style before the 17th century based on the form of chun-rik.

Next, the distinguishing feature is his face. Western historians say that the man’s face has a typical characteristic of Mongolian lineage, and the author also assumes that he must not be from southern Asia, given that his nose is relatively prominent and cheekbones are somewhat projected. Although it is still difficult to judge him as a Korean man, he asserts, with less confidence, that there also are no clues indicating that the man in picture is not Korean.

Then, on what grounds is it that the man in Rubens’ drawing was Antonio? Antonio has been known as a person who was captured and sent to Japan during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 but was bought by Italian merchant Francesco Carletti later on and sent to Italy.

The author assumed that Rubens might have met Antonio in Rome between mid-July in 1606 and October 1608 and from this, drew him on the basis that Antonio lived in Rome shortly after his arrival in Firenze with Carletti in July 1606. There are some historical sources indicating that Rubens visited Rome in November 1605 ~ October 1608.

Another mystery about Antonio is whether or not the Coreas, living in Albi village, an inland town in southern Italy, are the true descendants of Antonio, as reported by some press in 1990s. The author affirmed that there are no facts proven true.

Albi village went under the governance of Spain from 1505. However, a family name Corea also exists in Spain, and therefore it is possible that the Corea family of Spain might have flow into this area. Or maybe, a “Curia” family from Europe could have been renamed as Corea after many turns and twists.

The above grounds seem not to be enough to agree with the author’s belief. However, with discovering abundant photographs, the way of figuring out a riddle with the author is as attractive as the drawing of Rubens.

Jin-Yeong Lee ecolee@donga.com