Art Guides

What is Genre Painting?

Tissot The Ball on Shipboard what is a genre painting
James Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard, c. 1874. Tate Britain, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

We often talk about genres of paintings the way we might talk about genres of movies or books. I assume that makes sense to everyone. But then we also talk about genre painting being one of those genres. This might be confusing, so it’s important to understand the difference.

Dance Around the May Pole Brueghel what is a genre painting
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Dance Around the May Pole, c. 1634. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, Switzerland. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

A genre painting is a scene of everyday life – ordinary people doing ordinary things. It might show people shopping in an outdoor market, a woman reading a letter in an interior, children playing, or all sorts of other habitual scenes. It might be set in the city or countryside, indoors or out, and among all different classes and cultures of people. Genre scenes sometimes carry a message or moral lesson. They may be straightforward, serious, sentimental, or comical. As I’m sure you can tell by now, there are a lot of possibilities.

The Election by Hogarth what is a genre painting
William Hogarth, The Election: 2. Canvassing for Votes, c. 1754-5. Sir John Sloane’s Museum, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

Genre painting was popular in Europe for centuries, starting in northern Europe during the Renaissance. Accordingly, it has been presented in lots of different styles and contexts. Like so much else in the world of art, this term largely fell out of use in the early twentieth century. After all, the traditional divisions of subject matter became less and less important with each subsequent Avant-Garde movement. However, you’ll still find many works fitting the description of genre painting by contemporary figurative artists today.

Eastman Johnson Corn Husking what is a genre painting
Eastman Johnson, Corn Husking, 1860. Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

In case you’re wondering where genre paintings ranks amongst the genres of painting (See what I did there?), it’s pretty low down. In fact, only still life painting ranks lower. This isn’t all bad, however. Because their subject matter was approachable and their sizes (and therefore prices) relatively modest, genre paintings reached a wider art-buying audience than history paintings or even landscape paintings.

Sources:  Art Term: Genre Painting” Tate Britain.

Clarke, Michael. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 107.

Meagher, Jennifer. “Genre Painting in Northern Europe” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (April 2008)

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