A genre painting, also known as a morality painting, places everyday actions at the center of the artwork. These can be specific individual scenes, larger groups of people, or so-called “hidden object images”. In most cases, no identifiable personalities are depicted, but rather archetypes of a social class or group. These representations were already widespread in antiquity, but modern genre painting came to the fore mainly in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. Even today, artists still appreciate the aesthetics of the everyday. But what makes this genre so interesting for artists and viewers?
Genre Painting in the 16th and 17th century
The early genre paintings in Flanders and the Netherlands portray society, its everyday habits and customs, more in terms of their inadequacies, focusing on negative examples and taking on a morally instructive role. Brabant born Pieter Brueghel the Elder created arguably the most famous moralizing genre scenes of the 16th century. In his peasant scenes, he shows celebrating, drunk, or working people. The pieces were, and remain, eye-catching as the partly vulgar scenes of the anonymous farmers were unique at the time. Certainly the Reformation movements that emerged from the beginning of the 16th century in the Netherlands, above all Calvinism with its strict puritanical canon of rules, played a major role in the emergence of these moral doctrines.
Even in the following century, the works lose none of their moralizing function. Artists like the Dutchman Johannes Vermeer, however, approached this genre of painting in a less directly instructive way. His works, such as the scenes with young women, offer the viewer more room for interpretation and show genre painting from a more mysterious and enigmatic side. Perspective, lighting situation, architecture, fabrics, and materials of all kinds – all of which played a decisive role in his almost mystical and highly aesthetic everyday scenes. Here the artist shows all his skills with supposedly everyday subjects and creates a feast for the eyes.
The Contemporary Genre Painting
Contemporary painting continues to depict everyday scenes that could be considered genre scenes. Of course, we can identify with them much more today than with the everyday life of a 17th century dairymaid from Delft. But what is the attraction of contemporary genre paintings? We look at some examples of our artists and take a look at the aesthetic characteristics of these works of art.
With his artwork Lecture du quotidien, the French painter Alain Pontecorvo shows us an everyday activity. The person reading moves into the background, the striking element of the artwork being newspaper. As in the genre scenes of the 16th and 17th centuries, on closer inspection it immediately becomes clear that this is a perfectly staged composition. We see no background, only a light source from the right locates the person sitting on the chair in the room. This artistic arrangement, similar to a theater stage, emphasizes the aesthetics of the everyday.
With his works in the Domestic Interiors series, British artist John Macaulay gives us an insight into the homes of Great Britain. His way of depicting supposedly trivial scenes, however, shows us more than that. With wit and irony, he depicts petty bourgeois life in a way that makes us contemptuously smile at the people portrayed, or even inwardly, should we recognize ourselves in some scenes. Here we see genre painting as a means of self-irony.
The work Tour de Table by the French painter Marc Dailly shows us a family dinner. The perspective is reminiscent of a fisheye lens photograph. Gestures and the posture of the depicted children and adults do not appear posed, but rather natural, like a snapshot. Especially striking and unique among the works presented in this article, in this artwork we ourselves become participants in the everyday scene. We are dealing with an immersive image, as the plate at the lower edge of the picture indicates that we the viewers are sitting at the table with the family.
The diversity of genre scenes, of which only a tiny fraction could be examined in detail here, makes it clear why genre painting is still so interesting today. Hardly any other genre is so close to our everyday life, makes use of our habits and customs, and presents them in a multi-faceted way. With wit, irony, and staged aesthetics, genre painting has the power to leave us astonished.