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An Introduction to the Historical Context of Korea
in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Jin-Ae Kang, PhD
(ECU School of Communication)

How do you see people whose physical features, cultural traditions, and customs differ from yours? Do you see people who look different from you as being just as human as you?

As a Korean immigrant living in the US, I was always curious about how non-Korean people understood my mother country. Korea is no longer an exotic nation. Thanks to the Internet and transnational media, people around the world enjoy Korean popular culture through K-pop, dramas, and movies. Korean brands like Samsung and Hyundai compete in global markets. Korea’s contemporary successes make it hard to believe that the country had a turbulent history in the first half of the 20th century before emerging from the ashes of the Korean War and rebuilding itself.


You may be interested in exploring how non-Korean people, especially westerners, saw Korea before it became a global cultural and economic powerhouse. In this art exhibition, you will meet four western artists: Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Lilian Miller (1895–1943), Paul Jacoulet (1896–1960), and Willy Seiler (1903–1988?). They traveled to Korea in the early to mid-20th century and drew scenic landscapes and the lives of Korean people. Let me explain the historical context in which those artists experienced Korea[1].


By the 1880s, Joseon (the last dynastic kingdom of Korea) was a nation hidden from the western world. What western people knew of Korea they learned through China or Japan. In the mid-19th century, western powers forced China and Japan to open their doors and then asked the same of Joseon. However, Joseon rightfully rejected those encroachments. Joseon repelled French forces in 1866 and American forces in 1871. However, the pressure continued. Four years later in 1875, Japan, which had rapidly westernized after 1868, threatened Joseon militarily and forced it to accept an unfair trade treaty (Ganghwa Treaty of 1876).


In 1897, Joseon changed its name to the Korean Empire (Daehan Jeguk) and implemented reforms, including an open-door policy, but it was too late. After modernizing, Japan rapidly emerged as an imperial power in East Asia. Japan won major victories against the Qing Dynasty (1894–1895) and Russia (1904–1905) in Korean territory. Then, in August 1910, the Empire of Japan formally annexed the Korean Empire with the Japan-Korea Treaty—without the consent of the former Korean Emperor Gojong or the signature of reigning Emperor Sunjong.


During the colonial period (1910–1945), Japanese rule seemingly accelerated Korea’s industrialization, developing railroads and improving major roads and ports that supported economic development. However, the main purpose of the development was to pillage Joseon’s natural resources just like other imperialists did in their colonies in Asia, Africa, and South America.


British artist Elizabeth Keith traveled to Korea in the 1920s, after the Sam-il (March First) Independence Movement of 1919. The movement was a series of nationwide non-violent protests for Korean national independence from Japan that began on March 1, 1919. Records indicate that around 2 million Koreans participated in more than 1,500 demonstrations before Japanese authorities suppressed the movement 12 months later. About 7,000 people were killed by Japanese police and soldiers, and 16,000 were wounded.[2] Although Keith perceived Japan as a civilized country with a charming culture, she condemned the Japanese imperial government’s brutal oppression of the Korean people in her book, Old Korea. After the Sam-il Independence Movement, Keith discovered enormous latent energy in Koreans who consistently resisted peacefully. She understood and loved Korea and its people. She did not see Korean tradition as something that needed to vanish amid modernization. Instead, Keith immersed herself in her subjects’ culture and preserved the lives of Korean people in her artworks.


Lilian May Miller also visited Korea mostly in the 1920s, but her artistic stance was more orientalist; her artwork depicts the Orient as a world without change and a world of timeless, atemporal customs and rituals”[3] In many of her works, Miller emphasized quaint scenes of Korea.


Lilian Miller’s artworks and identity resided between two worlds: the East and the West. Miller’s father worked as an American diplomat in Japan and later in Korea, and so Miller was born and grew up in Japan and later lived in Korea. She was a foreigner in Japan who studied Japanese traditional art. In America, she was perceived as too Japanese rather than American. Her art depicting Korean subjects satisfied both American and Japanese collectors who were fascinated with exotic subjects.[4]


From the 1920s through the 1930s, Japanese imperialists adopted policies to obliterate Korean culture and spirit. Press censorship intensified, and the use of the Korean language was banned. Japanese authorities went so far as to require Koreans to change their names to Japanese-style names under the 1939 Name Order, which made it easy to conscript Koreans into the Japanese workforce or military during the Pacific War.


In the 1930s, Japan experienced an economic crisis due to the Great Depression, which caused the expansion of Japanese militarism. As a result, Japan waged wars such as its invasion of Manchuria (1931), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), and the Pacific War (1941–1945). Japan used the Korean peninsula as a military logistics base during these wars, thus exacerbating its exploitation of Korea’s natural resources and manpower[5].


Paul Jacoulet visited Korea many times, especially after 1929, to visit his mother who moved to Korea with her new husband, a Japanese physician. Jacoulet was born in France but spent most of his childhood in Japan. Like Lilian Miller, Jacoulet built a unique identity somewhere between a Japanese artist and a Western artist. Life in Japan in the 1930s became increasingly uncomfortable for foreigners due to the society’s wartime mentality. In the winter of 1936, Jacoulet made his last regular visit to Korea which was supported by his mother; he made side trips to the Korean countryside and traveled as far north as Manchuria.[6]


Like Elizabeth Keith, Jacoulet painted a variety of Korean subjects, such as a bride and groom, a merchant, beggars, mothers with their children, wealthy young Koreans, and potters. Jacoulet was sympathetic to endangered people, whether Koreans under Japanese occupation, the Machus and Mongolians of Manchukuo (Manchuria), or the Ainu, an aboriginal people of Japan.


Japanese colonial occupation of Korea continued until the mid-1940s, and Koreans continued to fight for their nation's independence in China, Manchuria, and the Maritime Province of Siberia. On August 15, 1945, Korea was finally liberated as a result of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War. Korea’s fate was once again in the hands of western powers. As World War II ended, US and Soviet troops were deployed to disarm Japanese troops on the Korean Peninsula.


US troops occupied the Korean peninsula south of the 38th parallel while Soviet forces occupied the northern half of the peninsula. Korea was divided between the superpowers’ competing ideologies: US democracy/capitalism and Soviet communism. On June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea, igniting the Korean War amid the escalating Cold War.


German-born artist Willy Seiler settled in Japan after the end of World War II and created works for non-Japanese people, primarily members of the American occupation force in Japan. His sketches often appeared in Pacific Stars and Stripes, an American military publication[7]. Seiler visited Korea three times between 1956 and 1960 and produced 13 artworks of his Korean series[8]. Seiler vividly depicted the fierce battle for life that ordinary Korean women fought.


Many westerners approved of Japan and dismissed Korea as uncivilized in the early 20th century. They believed that Korean modernization should follow Japanese assimilation. Through this exhibition, however, you will discover artists who gazed at their Korean subjects with respect and humanism as the Korean people endured difficult times.  Now I would like to ask you the question I posed above about Korea in the eyes of non-Korean people. In our multicultural society, I hope this art exhibition allows all of us to reflect on our perspectives toward fellow citizens who look different from us. Enjoy the exhibition!



[1] Korean Cultural Center New York (2022). Korea Information - History.


[2] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, February 22). March First Movement. Encyclopedia Britannica.


[3] Nochlin, L. (1983, May). The Imaginary Orient, Art in America, 119–31 and186–91.


[4] Brown, K. H. (1998). Between Two Worlds: The life and art of Lilian May Miller. Pacific Asia Museum.


[5] Britannica (2022). The rise of the militarists.


[6] Miles, R. (1989). Watercolors of Paul Jacoulet. Pacific Asia Museum.


[7] Eastern Impressions: Westertn Printmakers and the Orient (2016). Welcome to Karuizawa: The Etchings of Willy Seiler


[8]  이충렬 (2011). 그림으로 읽는 한국 근대의 풍경. 김영사.

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