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Arhat and Deer, Late 17th century


The blending of Korean Shamanist and traditional Buddhist iconographies can be seen in this painting of an arhat and deer. The sparsely bearded figure of an old man holding a walking staff resembles conventional depictions of San Shin, the Mountain Spirit, who was the most popular deity in the Shamanist pantheon. However, his bald head surrounded by a halo, and monk’s robes, suggests a Buddhist holy man, or arhat (in Korean, nahan). Replacing the tiger normally associated with San Shin is a deer, a traditional Buddhist symbol of longevity; the pink polocho, the small flower to the immediate left of the arhat’s shoulder, is likewise a symbol of long life. The nearby peonies symbolize prosperity and progeny and may therefore allude to San Shin’s capacity to bestow children. The pine tree and waterfall are customary elements of Mountain Spirit paintings, with the pine also symbolizing venerable old age and endurance.

Combining figural and landscape elements, rendered in brilliant colors on silk, the direct and vivid treatment of this subject exemplifies the somewhat naïve aesthetic associated with Korean folk painting. The skillful conception and execution of this very fine work suggest the hand of a master monk-painter, and it is most likely to have hung in a Buddhist temple or shrine.


(R-L Sneider Inc., New York);

purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1995.

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