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Genre Painting

  Genre painting depicts scenes of daily life, animals or still life. While such themes have long been represented in art—for example, in the statuettes of gossiping women or busy slaves which were popular in Hellinistic Greece—the advent of Christian iconography meant that, in painting, they were pushed to what might be described the decorative sidelines, into the background of scenes of grander significance: a trend followed also in the paintings with historical subjects. In contrast to the subject matter of these works, genre paintings as such usually encompass low-key, domestic portraiture without any dynastic, doctrinal or heroic pretensions. This style of genre painting first became important, in its own right, in 17th-century Holland, where it fulfilled the desire of the middle classes for representational painting that reflected their everyday, secular and commercial lives. Prominent among the Dutch genre painters were de Hooch, Metsu, Steen and Vermeer.

In the 18th century, genre painting had two flowerings: one in the Imperial court of Japan (where domestic scenes, typically showing animals, children and beggars were popular); and in France, where Chardin\'s still lifes and interiors were particularly outstanding, imbued as they were with a reverent attention to the commonplace, which transcends mere representation. In the 19th century, genre painting formed only a significant minority at exhibitions, such as those of the Paris salon. Indeed, genre subjects were largely dealt with by photographers—further sidelining the art. The advent of Impressionism, however, challenged and defeated the need to essay an ‘important’ subject in order to make an ‘important’ painting. This meant that artists were able to find the full range of aesthetic and intellectual possibilities within very simple still-life motifs. A concern with form rather than content, which became a hallmark of modernism. In the 20th century, collapse of the hierarchy of genres has finally put paid to the lowly status accorded to genre painting in academic critical esteem. MG PD



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