Genre Painting (European)
From the Renaissance to the beginning of the modern period, European paintings were classified according to genre, or subject matter, and each genre had its rank. The human figure was considered the most elevated subject because of the belief that man was made in God’s image. As artists moved away from depicting the figure, the importance and nobility of their images was thought to diminish.
The most prestigious genre, history painting, depicted scenes drawn from history, religion, or literature. Greek and Roman subjects, stories from the Bible, and great narratives of kings and emperors were considered the most worthy subjects for artists.
Second in importance to history painting were scenes of everyday life. These images involved the human figure but showed men and women going about the ordinary activities of daily life rather than in moments of heroic action.
Portrait painting was the least important genre that dealt with the human figure. Although portraits can record the appearance of remarkable individuals and offer psychological insight into their characters, they are also often seen as mere reflections of human vanity.
In the hierarchy of genres, the least important were those in which the human figure plays little or no role: landscape and still life. Though these “lowly” genres depicted the grand spectacles of nature, they lacked the moral content that was believed to derive only from significant human action. Not until the end of the 18th century did these subjects begin to be appreciated as important genres for artistic experimentation.
DMA Label text, 2010.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Learn more about genre painting in Northern Europe from the Met.