From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Genre painting, also called genre scene or petit genre, depicts aspects of everyday life by portraying ordinary people engaged in common activities. One common definition of a genre scene is that it shows figures to whom no identity can be attached either individually or collectively - thus distinguishing them from history paintings and portraits. A work would often be considered as a genre work even if it could be shown that the artist had used a known person - a member of his family, say - as a model. In this case it would depend on whether the work was likely to have been intended to be perceived as a portrait by the artist - sometimes a rather subjective question. The depictions can be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Because of their familiar and frequently sentimental subject matter, genre paintings have often proven popular with the bourgeoisie, or middle class. The petit name contrasts this with the grand genre, history painting. Genre themes appear in nearly all art traditions. Painted decorations in ancient Egyptian tombs often depict banquets, recreation, and agrarian scenes, and even medieval prayer books such as the Book of Hours (see Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc De Berry) are decorated with "peasant" scenes of daily life.
European genre paintings
The Low Countries
The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder made peasants and their activities the subject of many of his paintings, and genre painting was to flourish in Northern Europe in Brueghel's wake. Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, David Teniers, Aelbert Cuyp, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter De Hooch were among the many painters specializing in genre subjects in the Netherlands during the 17th century. The generally small scale of these artists' paintings was appropriate for their display in the homes of middle class purchasers. Often the subject of a genre painting was based on a popular emblem from an Emblem book. This can give the painting a double meaning, such as in Gabriel Metsu's The Poultry seller, 1662, showing an old man offering a rooster in a symbolic pose that is based on a lewd engraving by Gillis van Breen (1595–1622), with the same scene.
In Italy, a "school" of genre painting was stimulated by the arrival in Rome of the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer in 1625. He acquired the nickname "Il Bamboccio" and his followers were called the Bamboccianti, whose works would inspire Giacomo Ceruti, Antonio Cifrondi, and Giuseppe Maria Crespi among many others.
Louis le Nain was an important exponent of genre painting in 17th century France, where the 18th century would bring a heightened interest in the depiction of everyday life, whether through the romanticized paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, or the careful realism of Chardin.
England and Scotland
In England, William Hogarth conveyed social criticism and moral lessons through canvases that told stories of ordinary people, often in serial form. William Powell Frith is perhaps the most famous English genre painter and was admired by many of his contemporaries. Other English genre painters include Augustus Leopold Egg, George Elgar Hicks, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Scotland produced two influential genre painters, David Allan (1744–96) and Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841). Gustave Courbet (1819–77) one of France's most famous genre painters, based his celebrated painting 'After Dinner at Ornans' (1849) on Wilkie's 'The Cottar's Saturday Night' (1837).
Spain had an old tradition standing since before The Book of Good Love of social observation and commentary based on the Old Roman Latin tradition and to this many of its painters,and illuminated miniature painters followed work. Pedro Berruguete brought his social scenes and critic with many of its works.What at the height of the Spanish Empire was continued including scenes of street life picaresque and at its slow falling eventually produced many works by the painters of TheSpanish Golden Age, Velázquez, Murillo and others. The Spanish artist Francisco de Goya used genre painting as a medium for dark commentary on the human condition.
International and other Continents genre paintings
The first true genre painter in the United States was German immigrant John Lewis Krimmel, who learning from Wilkie and Hogarth, produced gently humorous scenes of life in Philadelphia from 1812–21. One of the more notable genre painters from the United States was Harry Roseland,
With the decline of religious and historical painting in the 19th century, artists increasingly found their subject matter in the life around them. Realists such as Gustave Courbet upset expectations by depicting everyday scenes in huge paintings—at the scale traditionally reserved for "important" subjects—thus blurring the boundary which had set genre painting apart as a "minor" category. History painting itself shifted from the exclusive depiction of events of great public importance to the depiction of genre scenes in historical times, both the private moments of great figures, and the everyday life of ordinary people. Subsequently the Impressionists, as well as such 20th century artists as Pierre Bonnard, Edward Hopper, and David Park painted scenes of daily life, but in the context of modern art the term "genre painting" has come to be associated mainly with painting of an especially anecdotal or sentimental nature, painted in a traditionally realistic technique. The works of American painter Ernie Barnes and those of illustrator Norman Rockwell could exemplify a more modern type of genre painting.