Costume Drama: Rubens and Korea

A mysterious drawing inspires a show at the Getty

Peter Paul Rubens, Man in Korean Costume, ca. 1617.J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES 

For centuries, the drawing at the center of the new exhibition “Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia” was thought to depict a Siamese ambassador to the court of Britain’s King Charles I. But in recent decades, it has become a subject of fascination—in Korea. The piece had long been hidden away in a private collection, before the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired it in 1983. “It was only after it came to the Getty and came in the public view that the Korean community began to know more about it and do their own research,” says Stephanie Schrader, the museum’s associate curator of drawings.

Costume historians from Korea have since identified the man’s layered, flowing robes and tall cylindrical headdress as items worn by high-ranking Korean officials during Peter Paul Rubens’s time, when Korea was known as the “hermit kingdom” and was largely isolated from the West. Still, it remains unclear how Rubens, who made the drawing around 1617 and never traveled to Asia, came into contact with a man wearing Korean garb. Through an array of objects, “Looking East” (opening March 5 at the Getty) offers a cross-cultural view of various theories swirling around this enigmatic work, while acknowledging that the truth may never be known.

Some researchers have asserted that the drawing depicts a Korean slave who served as a translator for the Dutch in Japan. Others propose it is a portrait of Antonio Corea, also a slave, who was brought to Europe by Italian slave trader Francesco Carletti. Neither of these stories has been definitively confirmed, Schrader says, although the exhibition does include a copy of Carletti’s travel narrative, in which he mentions Corea.

“It’s a very popular belief,” notes Schrader, adding that the drawing has been shown twice in Korea, and even inspired a novel there. “If you know the history of Korea, and how ravaged they were by exterior forces, and how closed off they were to the West, to have Rubens portray this costume at all is remarkable,” she says.

For Schrader, the drawing is most likely associated with commissions Rubens executed for Jesuit missionaries newly returned from China. “Looking East” includes an image of missionary Nicolas Trigault wearing a similar, though not identical, Chinese costume. But the curator makes a distinction between Rubens’s studies and his portraits. “What he typically did when he was making foreign costume studies was annotate them,” she says. Man in Korean Costume has no annotations, and leaves a different impression.

“You can tell he was captivated by this costume,” Schrader adds, “but he just really was not 100 percent sure about what he was looking at. It doesn’t have a documentation feel—it has more of this curiosity feel to it.”

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