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7 / Domestic Life

Brush Holder
Brush Holder
Artist / Origin Korean artist
Region: East Asia
Date Chosôn Dynasty, late 18th–19th century
Material Porcelain
Medium: Ceramics
Dimensions H: 5 1/4 in. (13.3 cm.), W: 5 1/4 in. (13.3 cm.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hewitt Fund

expert perspective

Soyoung LeeAssociate Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Brush Holder

» Korean artist

expert perspective

Soyoung Lee Soyoung Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Korean society and home during the Chosôn Dynasty was very segregated in terms of the sexes. Within elite homes, there was a strict division of the male quarters and the female quarters. The objects that belong to the male quarters generally comprised of things that were related to the scholar’s activities, such as writing, or reading, or painting. The brush holder was an important part of the scholar’s writing implements. So it’s ceramic that was made from white clay with a very clear glaze. Porcelain was the major kind of ceramics made in Korea during the Chosôn Dynasty from about the end of the fourteenth century all the way through the beginning of the twentieth century. China was the first to produce porcelain, and then Japan and Europe caught on later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and porcelain brought on this sort of revolution in ceramics worldwide. And so Korea was participating in that.

What’s unusual about Korean porcelain is that there’s very limited use of color, which is very unlike porcelain made everywhere else in the world. So this particular brush holder is undecorated. It does have design. You can see on the surface a very beautiful lotus flower that’s been cut out into the body of the brush holder. What does lotus mean? Originally the lotus flower was associated with the Buddha and often the Buddhist figures would stand on lotus petals. But by this time the Chosôn is a period when Buddhism, which had been the state religion in Korea for over a thousand years, was actively suppressed. Many of the motifs that had originally been associated with Buddhism were taken out of that context. The lotus was associated with the Confucian scholar because the lotus grows in a muddy area but remains pristine and pure. Whether that symbolic meaning is reflected in this particular brush holder we don’t know. Sometimes the lotus flower was just a design.

The appeal of the undecorated pure white porcelain for the Koreans, particularly the Korean elites at this time, had very much to do with Confucian principles that emphasized understated elegance, understated beauty, purity, and frugality actually. When porcelain use spread beyond the elite class, different grades or different qualities of porcelain were produced. So, of course, the elites, the court, was still able to get the most beautiful, the most refined, the most white porcelain produced at quality controlled kilns, whereas the lower classes would have to do with the slightly lower quality porcelain.” 

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