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Detailed Picture of Last Empress Found in Russian Daily

Posted August. 16, 2010 11:24,   


A detailed picture of Korea’s last empress Myeongseong, who was killed by Japanese assassins on Oct. 8, 1895, has been recently discovered.

The picture was published in a Russian newspaper immediately after her assassination and is expected to reignite the controversy over the authenticity of her pictures and portraits.

○ Found after 115 years

The Research Group for Global Korean Business and Culture of Chonnam National University released the picture to The Dong-A Ilbo Sunday. The picture was published on Oct. 21, 1895, on page eight of the Russian daily Novoe Vremya printed in St. Petersburg.

Measuring five centimeters wide and eight centimeters long, the picture was captioned “The assassinated Joseon Dynasty empress.” She was wearing Chinese-style clothes and hair ornaments with her features well-defined and Westernized.

The research group said the picture was drawn based on the description of the wife of a Russian diplomat who met the empress. Professor Huh Seong-tae said, “Given that no external painter could have entered the royal residence under protocol, the picture seems to have been based on the description of a person who saw the empress in person. The Russian painter could have depicted her clothes as Chinese since he didn’t see hanbok (traditional Korean dress).”

Other experts say the Westernized depiction of the empress might have reflected the Russian government’s perspective at the time.

Lee Min-won, a visiting professor of history education at Wonkwang University, said, “There is something awkward about the portrait of the empress painted by the Japanese. In contrast, the Russian depiction of the empress seems more familiar to Westerners with well-defined eyes and an oval-shaped face, with her nose high perhaps because Russia was on good terms with her.”

○ Portrait controversy continues

Controversy continues over the authenticity of the empress’s photos and portraits. Her picture published in history textbooks after Korea’s liberation in 1945 was removed in the early 2000s, when allegations were raised that the person in the picture was a maid. The established theory is that her real photo has yet to be discovered.

Around 10 portraits and photos of the empress, including an illustration published in the French weekly L`Illustration (Nov. 2, 1895) after the assassination, are known to exist. Yet nobody can say for sure which of them accurately represents her.

For now, the testimonies of the wives of diplomats and missionaries who met the empress serve as the only clues to her appearance. Kim Yeong-soo of the Northeast Asian History Foundation said, “The detailed picture printed in Novoe Vremya is similar to another portrait based on the description of Isabella Bird Bishop of the U.K., who lived in Korea back then.”