Art Quiz: The Answer is Genre Painting

Quite simply, genre painting refers to scenes of everyday people doing everyday things. These paintings — which have long been a part of art — have sometimes been looked down upon, called “bourgeoisie“, and considered of lesser value than paintings of historical events, religious themes, or very important people.

When we look back through art history, we find that artists have always depicted the ordinary aspects of life. Egyptian tomb decorations reflect agrarian scenes, discoveries from the ancient city of Pompeii show scenes of cobblers and stables, and scholars have found many “genre” details in medieval manuscripts.

Genre painting was a definite part of Dutch art. Masters, such as Vermeer, were known for their paintings of peasants and their daily lives.

Within the Dutch genre paintings, we often find rather risque ideas and a bit of bawdiness. Here, as an example is “Kitchen Scene” by Peter Wtewael:

And here’s a very interesting analysis of the painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Typical of Dutch genre paintings from the first half of the seventeenth century, Wtewael’s kitchen scene abounds in visual jokes of a frankly erotic nature, such as the prominent display of meat on a skewer. The grins of housemaid and errand boy indicate their enjoyment of one another’s company, while the lavishly depicted foodstuffs surrounding them allude to the pleasures of the flesh. Such combinations of risqué humor with abundant still life elements had deep roots in Netherlandish painting.

It wasn’t really until the early 1900s and the “Impressionist” movement, however, that genre painting came to the forefront of the art world. Prior to this, although artists had painted “common” scenes, they were usually done on smaller canvases. Larger paintings focused on the more “important” themes — those with historical, religious, mythological significance, or portraits of famous individuals.

The Impressionists began painting larger genre paintings. They considered these ordinary subjects to be worthy of attention, and, as always, it’s helpful here, I think, to put art in context. The Impressionist movement developed at a time when Paris — and other cities — were undergoing considerable growth. Life was changing. There was excitement and energy in the air.

The Tate explains:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century a new focus for genre painting emerged. Artists wanted to capture the excitement and fleeting nature of the modern life they saw around them in fast-growing metropolises such as London and Paris. The simple and slightly sentimental genre scenes of the Victorian era were replaced by bustling street scenes and glittering cafe interiors captured by impressionist artists such as Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. Reflections on the downsides of urbanisation also became a subject for artists. Camden Town Group painter Walter Sickert’s genre scenes painted early in the twentieth century include alienated couples in interiors – suggesting the loneliness people can feel in big cities.

Another example of genre art from this era is “Railway” by Manet:

In genre painting, many artists used family members as inspiration. Below is “Living Room with the Artist’s Sister, Emilie” by German artist, Adolph Menzel:

Artists from every country have explored genre painting, and other cultures have their own genre art as well. Japanese ukiyo-e prints (one of my favorite art forms) depicts ordinary people going about their day. There are many Korean “genre” paintings, as well.

From ancient times, through the medieval era, from the low countries to the bustling cities of Paris and London, right down to our present day, artists have always drawn inspiration from the world around them.

 

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