The term genre painting refers to paintings which depict scenes of everyday life
- Introduction to genre painting
- Genre painting in context
- Other perspectives on genre painting
- Genre painting in detail
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 Morland, Henry 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:
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 painting; portrait painting; landscape 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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- Studies near Brighton sketchbook 1796
- Liber Studiorum: Drawings and Related Works c.1806–24
- Swiss Figures sketchbook 1802
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.