The term genre painting refers to paintings which depict scenes of everyday life

Sir David Wilkie, 'The Blind Fiddler' 1806
Sir David Wilkie
The Blind Fiddler 1806
Oil on mahogany
support: 578 x 794 mm
Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

Introduction

Genre painting developed particularly in Holland in the seventeenth century. The most typical subjects were scenes of peasant life or drinking in taverns, and tended to be small in scale. In Britain William Hogarth’s modern moral subjects were a special kind of genre, in their frankness and often biting social satire.

Simpler genre painting emerged in later eighteenth century in for example George MorlandHenry Robert Morland and Francis Wheatley. Genre painting became hugely popular in the Victorian age following the success of the brilliantly skilled but deeply sentimental works of Sir David Wilkie.

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.

Explore a selection of genre paintings from Tate’s collection in the slideshow below:

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  • William Hogarth, 'O the Roast Beef of Old England ('The Gate of Calais')' 1748
    William Hogarth
    O the Roast Beef of Old England ('The Gate of Calais') 1748
    Oil on canvas
    support: 788 x 945 mm
    frame: 1072 x 1228 x 105 mm
    Presented by the Duke of Westminster 1895
  • Henry Robert Morland, 'A Laundry Maid Ironing' circa 1765-82
    Henry Robert Morland
    A Laundry Maid Ironing circa 1765-82
    Oil on canvas
    support: 743 x 616 mm
    frame: 942 x 817 x 92 mm
    Purchased 1894
  • George Morland, 'Outside the Ale-House Door' 1792
    George Morland
    Outside the Ale-House Door 1792
    Oil on canvas
    support: 349 x 273 mm
    Bequeathed by George Salting 1910
  • William Maw Egley, 'Omnibus Life in London' 1859
    William Maw Egley
    Omnibus Life in London 1859
    Oil on canvas
    support: 448 x 419 mm
    frame: 620 x 597 x 56 mm
    Bequeathed by Miss J.L.R. Blaker 1947
  • Briton Riviere, 'Sympathy' circa 1878
    Briton Riviere
    Sympathy circa 1878
    Oil on canvas
    support: 451 x 375 mm
    frame: 748 x 668 x 123 mm
    Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1897
  • Sir George Clausen, 'Winter Work' 1883-4
    Sir George Clausen
    Winter Work 1883-4
    Oil on canvas
    frame: 1075 x 1212 x 115 mm
    support: 775 x 921 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983© The estate of Sir George Clausen
  • Frank Bramley, 'A Hopeless Dawn' 1888
    Frank Bramley
    A Hopeless Dawn 1888
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1226 x 1676 mm

    Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1888
  • Philip Wilson Steer, 'Boulogne Sands' 1888-91
    Philip Wilson Steer
    Boulogne Sands 1888-91
    Oil on canvas
    support: 610 x 765 mm
    frame: 910 x 1058 x 74 mm
    Presented by the Art Fund 1943© Tate
  • Albert Rutherston, 'Laundry Girls' 1906
    Albert Rutherston
    Laundry Girls 1906
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 915 x 1170 mm
    Presented by Humbert Wolfe 1939© Tate
  • Edvard Munch, 'The Sick Child' 1907
    Edvard Munch
    The Sick Child 1907
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1187 x 1210 mm
    frame: 1371 x 1393 x 108 mm
    Presented by Thomas Olsen 1939© Munch Museum/Munch-EllingsendGroup/DACS 2002
  • Albert Rutherston, 'Paddling' 1911
    Albert Rutherston
    Paddling 1911
    Tempera on canvas
    support: 2277 x 2013 mm
    Purchased 1931© Tate
  • Harold Gilman, 'Leeds Market' c.1913
    Harold Gilman
    Leeds Market c.1913
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 508 x 610 mm
    frame: 690 x 790 x 75 mm
    Presented by the Very Rev. E. Milner-White 1927
  • Spencer Gore, 'The Gas Cooker' 1913
    Spencer Gore
    The Gas Cooker 1913
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 730 x 368 mm
    frame: 898 x 556 x 63 mm
    Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1962
  • Walter Richard Sickert, 'Ennui' c.1914
    Walter Richard Sickert
    Ennui c.1914
    © Tate
  • Walter Richard Sickert, 'Tipperary' 1914
    Walter Richard Sickert
    Tipperary 1914
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 508 x 406 mm
    frame: 600 x 500 x 55 mm
    Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940© Tate
  • Pierre Bonnard, 'Coffee' 1915
    Pierre Bonnard
    Coffee 1915
    Oil on canvas
    support: 730 x 1064 mm
    frame: 948 x 1282 x 95 mm
    Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the Art Fund 1941© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Edward Burra, 'The Snack Bar' 1930
    Edward Burra
    The Snack Bar 1930
    Oil on canvas
    support: 762 x 559 mm
    frame: 907 x 705 x 54 mm
    Purchased 1980© The estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London
  • Victor Pasmore, 'Lamplight' 1941
    Victor Pasmore
    Lamplight 1941
    Oil on canvas
    support: 635 x 762 mm
    frame: 869 x 1002 x 120 mm
    Purchased 1941© Tate
  • Peter Coker, 'Table and Chair' 1955
    Peter Coker
    Table and Chair 1955
    Oil and mixed media on board
    support: 1524 x 1219 mm

    Purchased 1981© Tate
  • Leon Kossoff, 'Woman Ill in Bed, Surrounded by Family' 1965
    Leon Kossoff
    Woman Ill in Bed, Surrounded by Family 1965
    Oil on board
    support: 1854 x 1245 mm

    Purchased 1981© Leon Kossoff
  • Michael Andrews, 'Melanie and Me Swimming' 1978-9
    Michael Andrews
    Melanie and Me Swimming 1978-9
    Acrylic on canvas
    support: 1829 x 1829 mm
    Purchased 1979© The estate of Michael Andrews
  • Jonathan Leaman, 'A Jan Steen Kitchen' 1995-6
    Jonathan Leaman
    A Jan Steen Kitchen 1995-6
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1235 x 1705 mm
    frame: 1286 x 1759 x 53 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Gytha Trust 1997© Jonathan Leaman
  • Paula Rego, 'The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after 'Marriage a la Mode' by Hogarth' 1999
    Paula Rego
    The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after 'Marriage a la Mode' by Hogarth 1999
    Pastel on paper on aluminium
    displayed: 1650 x 5000 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Gulbenkian Foundation 2002© Paula Rego

Genre painting…as a genre?!

Confusingly, the word ‘genre’ is also used in art to describe the different types, or broad subjects, of painting. In the seventeenth century five types – or ‘genres’ – of painting were established, these were: history paintingportrait paintinglandscape painting; genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and still life. These genres were seen by the art establishment as having varying levels of importance, with history painting (the painting of scenes from history, the bible or literature) as the most important genre, and still life (paintings of still objects) as the least important.

Further reading

BP Spotlight: The Nature of Common Life: Drawing the Everyday 1800–60
Drawings and sketches often provide the most revealing and intimate glimpses of everyday life, as this display of nineteenth century drawings reveals.

BP Spotlight: Art and Alcohol
Drinking and tavern scenes were a popular genre subject in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Find out about this display which examines the role of alcohol in British art from the nineteenth century to the modern day.

Focus: Victorian Sentimentality
Often dismissed as purely sentimental, this display revisited Victorian genre images of children and animals, to suggest more urgent and topical interpretations.

Hogarth
Explore the fascinating and subversive world of William Hogarth in this online exhibition guide to Tate Britain’s 2007 Hogarth exhibition.

In context

The Victorian era saw a golden age of genre painting. But artists – such as Emily Mary Osborne – were using scenes of everyday life to address topical social and political issues. Watch this video to find out about her painting (which can be seen as an early feminist work), and what else was happening in painting at that time:

Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929 to now
Genre painting was an early form of documentary in that the lives and situations of ordinary people were captured by artists. Explore how artists from the early twentieth to the twenty-first centuries have continued the tradition of documenting ordinary lives.

Other perspectives

L.S. Lowry Ancoats Hospital Outpatients' Hall 1952
L.S. Lowry
Ancoats Hospital Outpatients' Hall 1952

Lowry painted my life, so I sang about his
Painter L.S. Lowry is famous for the simple matchstick men and women who occupy his cityscapes and genre scenes. Find out why folk duo Brian and Michael were inspired to write a song about his paintings.

Hogarth’s London: then and now
How much has London changed since Hogarth created his satirical views of life in the city…?

We are here
In the twentieth century the development and increasing access that ordinary people had to cameras, meant that there was an immediate and accessible way of capturing scenes of everyday life. Has documentary photography and the humble snapshot replaced genre painting?

In detail

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'A Family Seen from Behind; A Man with a Bundle and a Woman Carrying an Infant Holding the Hand of a Small Girl' 1796
Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Family Seen from Behind; A Man with a Bundle and a Woman Carrying an Infant Holding the Hand of a Small Girl 1796
support: 110 x 129 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours
British artist J.M.W Turner is usually associated with his extraordinary landscape painting. But in his sketchbooks another Turner emerges – one who captured the unextraordinary: scenes of ordinary life, people working and shopping and going about their everyday business. Turner’s sketchbooks provide a fascinating insight into the life or ordinary people in the nineteenth century. Use the links below to browse a selection of Turner’s sketchbooks:

George Elgar Hicks’s Woman’s Mission and the Apotheosis of the Domestic
This research paper traces the evolution of the domestic in English cultural discourse over the first half of the nineteenth century, arguing that by the 1860s art that showed domestic scenes had become imbued with sacred significance and had ascended to the realm of religious high art.

The Camden Town Group in Context
The Camden Town Group painted realist scenes of city life as well as landscapes. Find out about their lives and art through a range of content from letters and sketches to themed essays in this in-depth research project.

Related glossary terms

Modern moral subject, Kitchen Sink painters, Victorian, Camden Town Group, narrative, social realism