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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Genre Painting in Northern Europe

From a raucous party of smokers at a tavern (32.100.21) to a housewife quietly absorbed in work (32.100.5), from a guardroom of gaming soldiers (64.65.5) to a scene of gallant courtship (32.100.19), the varied subject matter known collectively as genre painting depicted scenes from everyday life, both high and low. Genre painting enjoyed enormous popularity in northern Europe in this period, particularly in the seventeenth century and especially in the Netherlands, where many of its practitioners elevated what was critically regarded as a humble form to heights of desirability rivaling more classically esteemed subjects, such as history paintings (paintings of biblical scenes, classical history, or mythology).

By the time the French Academy—the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture—was founded in 1648, the hierarchy of arts was firmly established and upheld by critics throughout Europe, who ranked paintings according to their subject matter. The artist-writer Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), for example, in his Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Introduction to the Elevated School of Painting) of 1678, divided paintings into three “grades”: still-life painting ranked lowest, as it relied primarily on direct observation and skill, and history painting ranked highest, as it was believed to require imaginative genius for its execution. Occupying the huge middle rung was the form known today as genre painting, but which then lacked a general term (the word genre was probably used in this sense for the first time toward the end of the eighteenth century by French writer Quatremère de Quincy). Despite their middling status in contemporary theory, these kleyne beuzelingen (little trifles) were produced in great quantity, often fetched large sums—as did the works of the sought-after fijnschilder (fine painter) Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) (40.64) and his pupil Frans van Mieris (1635–1681)—and were collected by bakers, burghers, and princely patrons alike.

The foundations of genre painting in Europe were laid most remarkably by the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569) (19.164) in the sixteenth century. Bruegel’s inhabited landscapes and scenes of peasant life are lively and unsentimental depictions of common occurrence, such as weddings and village fairs. Often pointedly critical of human folly, as in works illustrating ever-popular proverbs and moral sayings, Bruegel’s oeuvre had great appeal to collectors and great influence on later artists, who prized his observational powers, humanistic approach, and the “lesson” or witty commentary often contained in his works.

In the Netherlands, artists such as Willem Buytewech (1591–1624) and Frans Hals (1582/83–1666) were pioneers of the first generation of genre painting. Buytewech, called “Geestige Willem” (“lively” or “witty” Willem), had a short but influential career depicting carousals of the well-heeled (and often badly behaved) as well as peasant life. His drawing Poultry Market in a Dutch Town (2002.122) is a vivid yet dignified portrayal of an everyday activity. Hals, a successful portraitist and painter of military companies, also excelled at genre subjects such as Merrymakers at Shrovetide (14.40.605) and Young Man and Woman in an Inn (14.40.602). The former, populated by stock characters from comic theater, contains in the characters’ gestures and the array of “props” and foodstuffs many thinly veiled sexual references that would have been understood by the viewer (who would have had, besides a certain assumed worldliness, access to the many books of emblems and symbolic devices popular during this time). The latter is an entirely secular treatment of the theme of youthful folly, depicted with especial variety by artists in Hals’ native city of Haarlem, and eschews direct reference to its biblical prototype, the tale of the Prodigal Son. Hals’ Flemish pupil, Adriaen Brouwer (1605/06–1638), specialized in low-life tavern scenes of card players and drunken brawls. In The Smokers (32.100.21), he depicted himself (as the foreground figure blowing smoke rings) and his friends, painters Jan Cossiers and Jan Davidsz. de Heem, with good-natured humor.

Through its Golden Age in the seventeenth century, genre painting in the Low Countries remained richly diverse in both style and subject as artists achieved new heights of technical refinement, optical and perspectival sophistication, and an often superb evocation of mood. In Leiden, Gerrit Dou established in the early 1630s a reputation as the first and greatest of a school of “fine painters,” producing small-format works of high finish and minute detail. These often depicted night scenes illuminated by glowing hearth or candlelight. Gerard ter Borch, the Younger (1617–1681), a native of Zwolle who later settled in Deventer, produced jewel-like paintings of upper-class domestic interiors, where sumptuously attired figures engage in pensive activities such as letter writing, reading, and gazing into a mirror (49.7.38; 17.190.10). Indeed, a large facet of a genre scene’s appeal was the opportunity it afforded to gaze into a private interior much like the one in which it might have hung and, in many cases, to identify with the values expressed by the subject. Paintings by Delft masters Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) and the less prolific but profoundly accomplished Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) exhibit compositional clarity, balance, and order, with painstakingly naturalistic lighting effects. They evoke a private world of quiet stillness, from a dozing maid (possibly intoxicated, as indicated by the wineglass nearby) (14.40.611) or a young woman gazing out of a window, pitcher (a traditional symbol of purity) in hand, to an intimate scene of family life (14.40.613). At another extreme, Jan Steen (1626–1679), a native of Leiden who traveled widely throughout the Netherlands and gathered influences from many sources, specialized in such themes as the chaotic upper-class household overrun by vice, and the lovesick maiden receiving a house call from a medical quack (46.13.2). Such themes had obviously moralizing overtones, but the result was just as often hilarious in effect. In The Dissolute Household (1982.60.31), a lascivious interaction plays out between man (bearing the features of Steen himself) and serving maid, while the mistress of the house, absorbed in the refilling of her wineglass, remains oblivious. Still-life elements such as the joint of meat cast on the floor and the broken jug warn against profligate behavior, while the clapper and crutch—symbols of poverty and disease—hint at what lies ahead for this wanton family. The contemporary viewer would appreciate the implied moral lesson as well as the wit and imagination of the artist and the degree of descriptive skill entailed.

Outside the Netherlands, a group of Dutch and Flemish artists were active by about 1625 in Rome, where they were called the Bamboccianti, after their leader Pieter van Laer (ca. 1592/95–?1642), known as “Il Bamboccio,” meaning “puppet” or “ugly doll,” because of a physical deformity. The Bamboccianti, including Jan Miel (1599–1664) (93.29), Johannes Lingelbach (1622–1674) (71.123), and Michiel Sweerts (1618–1664), painted scenes of contemporary life in the Roman countryside strongly influenced in their subject matter, realistic description of detail, and dramatic lighting effects by the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571–1610). Around the same time, Louis Le Nain (ca. 1600–1648), active in Paris, achieved a classicizing gravitas in genre scenes such as the Peasant Family (Musée du Louvre, Paris). His work inspired the street scenes of Jean Michelin (ca. 1616–1670) (27.59), a French painter of the next generation. These artists, working outside of the Dutch tradition, were interested in an unidealized depiction of everyday reality without moralizing social commentary.

By the eighteenth century, the popularity of genre painting in the Netherlands was eclipsed somewhat by a taste for larger-scale decorative works. Genre themes, often inspired by earlier Dutch works (20.155.8), remained popular in the oeuvres of French artists Jean Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). Chardin favored subjects of children at play, reflective studies of quiet absorption, as in Soap Bubbles (49.24) (where the bubble may allude to the transience of life). In works such as The Stolen Kiss (56.100.1), Fragonard allows the viewer a titillatingly voyeuristic glimpse of a moment of passionate abandon.