Born in 1896, Rha Hye-seok was the first Korean woman to study Western-style oil painting. In 1913, she began studying oil painting at the Women’s School of Art in Tokyo. After returning to Korea, she held her first solo exhibition of oil paintings in Seoul in 1921. At that time, oil painting was not well known or accepted among the Korean public, making her pioneering achievements all the more remarkable.
Rha Hye-seok was the epitome of the “New Woman” of the modern age. In addition to her groundbreaking work as an oil painter, she was also actively involved in the women’s liberation movement. She helped to publish the magazine New Woman and wrote numerous articles on women’s liberation, in addition to being an accomplished illustrator and novelist. In 1927, she and her husband, who was a lawyer and diplomat, traveled to Europe and the United States for one year and nine months. During their stay in Paris, Rha Hye-seok trained at the studio of Roger Bissière, where her early Impressionist works gave way to bolder, darker paintings that express her emotional and psychological state. One such work is Self-Portrait, which uses a dark palette to convey a sentiment of bleakness and gloom.
The darkness that appeared in Rha Hye-seok’s paintings was likely related to her marital problems. After the trip back to Korea, the marriage ended in divorce. At a time when marital infidelity and divorce were highly stigmatized, she spoke openly about her situation. In an article entitled “Confession about My Divorce,” she described her reasons for getting divorced, criticized gender inequality, and declared that every woman deserved autonomy as an independent person. Unfortunately, at that time, Korean society had little tolerance for a woman who expressed such progressive ideas or attempted to subvert traditional values. As a result, Rha was gradually shunned by society. She spent the last years of her life in poverty and alienation, before dying alone in 1948.