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Genres, Hierarchy of

  The term ‘hierarchy of genres’ refers not to genre painting but to the genres of painting (from French, genre ‘type’, ‘category’). The notion that some works of art, because of their subject matter, are automatically more important than others is alien to contemporary thinking, but until at least the middle of the 19th century it had real force. The academies of Western art, which practised an elevated form of painting in the grand manner, ranged painting in ascending order from still life (inanimate objects) through genre and animals (peopled, but only by peasants) and landscape through portraits (for the most part of sitters of some social standing) to religious and history painting. These last two were considered the most important categories, because they encompassed all other genres. The genre painter could only paint one kind of scene, but the history painter was also a landscape/genre/still-life painter, as all these skills were needed to represent the dramatic narrative of history.

This system militated against such genre painters as Chardin, who found himself fulsomely praised by the critic Diderot but denied access to comparison with history painters. Greuze, by contrast, who failed to enter the French Academy as a history painter, was awarded the dubious privilege of being received as a genre painter. MG PD

Further reading J. Harding, Artistes pompiers: French Academic Art in the 19th Century.



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