Genre painting is the art of painting subjects (usually people) in the activities of everyday life. These paintings were most often done in a realistic style and by artists who are well recognized for their work. Genre painting became a style recognized in the 17th and 18th centuries and recorded both daily work and leisure poses of the subjects. The Dutch Masters began this style of work and used the paintings to show the interactions between the persons in the paintings. Both triumphs and struggles were captured in the poses of workers.
Some of the most famous genre painters include Renoir, Degas, Repin, Millet, Bruegel, Vermeer and the contemporary painter Hopper.
Probably the most famous genre painter was Vermeer (1632-1675), although not in his own lifetime. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that interest in his brilliant work rekindled. His stark reality of what was about to happen or had just happened along with his unique palette of blue and yellow colors make the few paintings he did in his short life – 35 — very valuable.
Upon examining Renoir’s depiction of diners in the painting “River Party,” each person is doing a different thing, but altogether they create a party of people fully enjoying an afternoon with food and drink. Every aspect of that painting, from the way the stemware is painted with shiny edge reflections to the tufts of hair escaping from a cap or hat, fits the scene.
Degas might be best known for his work depicting dancers in various settings. His work is a record of the struggles and triumphs of (mostly women) dancers and the difficulty of their lives.
Repin is the most famous Russian painter of the 19th century and his works show life across the Russian landscape, the workers – both rural and urban. Additionally a landscape painter, Repin also took on a crusade of painting religious processions containing hundreds of people. His palette was dark, but dynamic spots of light give his works real interest.
Millet is best known for his plein-air genre painting of back-breaking toil. Done onsite and without fanfare, his works show rural peasants in their work. Being a religious man, his goal was to show the eternal struggle of man with the soil. His works were once thought to have hidden meanings, including that of unrest. Millet, however, rejected any such notion and said they were not social or political – only religious and truthful.
Bruegel the Eldest was described as the “Peasant Bruegel” because so much of his work involved very complex rural peasant scenes. Things in the scenes were untrue, but depicted as everyday occurrences. His works were full of satire and drunkenness and although depicted in strict realism, they were not real. Vices and other social issues were shown not as criticism but as a quiet reality. It was as though Bruegel was painting how the peasants really lived.
Although other painters did (or are doing, e.g., Edward Hopper) genre paintings, the above group represents the most significant historical start and continuation of that style. Their works are nearly all masterpieces. Close examination of any of these paintings will divulge hidden truths.