After studying at the Imperial Art School in Tokyo, Lee Qoede returned to Korea in 1939 and organized the Association of New Artists, propelling himself to the forefront of the Korean art world. Even through the turmoil of Korean independence, Lee persisted in his artistic craft, producing multiple masterpieces in the mid to late 1940s. But after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Lee was imprisoned by the U.S. Army in the Geoje POW Camp. After North and South Korea agreed to their truce in 1953, the two countries exchanged prisoners of war, and Lee chose to go to North Korea.
After the war, the anticommunist regime of South Korea banned any presentation of works by artists who had defected to North Korea, including Lee Qoede. It was not until 1988 that the works of these blacklisted artists could finally be shown and studied in South Korea. Thankfully, members of Lee’s family who had remained in the south had stored some of his paintings through the years, allowing him to receive his long overdue recognition as one of the finest painters of his time.
In Self-Portrait in Long Blue Coat, Lee portrays himself as a professional artist. With his lips firmly sealed in determination and his eyes looking straight at the viewer, he seems quite sure of himself. He is wearing a Western-style fedora, the hat favored by upper-class Korean men during the early modern era, while holding a palette of oil paints in his left hand. Notably, however, these Western trappings are juxtaposed with prominent symbols of Eastern art and Korea. For example, the artist is also holding several different versions of a brush called a mopil, used for Eastern ink painting and calligraphy, and wearing a blue durumagi, a traditional Korean overcoat. In addition, he stands against the background of the rural countryside of Korea, including several women wearing traditional attire.