The man in this portrait is Emperor Gojong, who was formerly known as King Gojong, the last king of the Joseon dynasty. In 1897, with his nation’s sovereignty under threat from foreign powers, King Gojong brought an end to the 500-year history of the Joseon dynasty and changed the name of his country to the “Korean Empire.” In an effort to maintain independence, Emperor Gojong actively promoted Korean history and culture on the international stage while embracing new cultures and technologies from around the world. But in 1907, Japan forced Emperor Gojong to abdicate, and he was replaced by his son, who became Emperor Sunjong. In 1910, Japan completed its annexation of Korea, and the name of the country was changed back to “Joseon.”
This portrait was painted by Chae Yongsin, who originally served as a military officer before being appointed as the royal portraitist in 1901. Emperor Gojong highly praised Chae Yongsin for painting extremely vivid portraits that were as lifelike as photographs, while still upholding the style of traditional portraits. The emperor thus rewarded Chae Yongsin with a government post and granted him the honorable pen name of “Seokgang.” But in 1905, after Korea lost its diplomatic sovereignty as a result of the second Japan-Korea Agreement, Chae retired from his post and moved to the country, where he could focus all of his time and energy on painting.
According to the inscription on the upper right of the painting, this is Chae’s copy of his the official portrait of Emperor Gojong, which he had painted in 1901, when the emperor was forty-nine years old. This copy was painted in 1920, about a year after the death of Emperor Gojong, who had spent his final years under close surveillance by the Japanese. Likely intended to commemorate the late emperor, this copy matches the appearance of the original but is smaller in size, to suit the needs of whoever commissioned the work.