, Research Paper
The term genre first appeared in French criticism as a means of classifying a type of picture. For instance, critics named De Piles and Fenelon once described landscape as a genre of painting (Wind 14). It wasn t until the middle of the 18th-century that the term gained the meaning that we know today. Encarta Encyclopedia now defines genre painting as a type of painting depicting realistic, detailed scenes from everyday life (Genre Painting). In these works, the traditionally idealized subject is replaced with intimate pictures of ordinary people. Of all aspects of Baroque art, one of the most significant is genre. Many of the great artists of this period attempted to create their own genre paintings. Because the images in genre painting reflect the interests and ideals of a period, this type of painting is especially important in understanding 17th-century culture. It is also due to this factor that genre has always been the least understood of all categories of painting. Figuring out the symbolism behind a piece of art is always difficult, but especially so when it appears to be self-explanatory. Some scholars have suggested that the moral and iconographic issues behind a genre piece are insignificant, and each should be viewed objectively. Others believe that searching for deeper meanings is quite justified. However, this type of art did not focus on just the imagery or hidden meanings. Genre painting attempted to take common events and present them in a more imaginative way, and balanced the observed fact and the creative idea (Sutton et al. 13-14). This discussion of genre painting focuses on Baroque artists, their contribution to genre painting, as well as an analysis of their work. I have broken them down into categories relating to their nationality, including Italian, Spanish and French artists. Also, I closely examine Dutch painters, who are known especially for their genre works during the 17th-century. With the overall study, I have attempted to shed light on some of the obscure aspects of genre painting of the Baroque period. In Italy, genre was first noticed in the late 15th-century, with the paintings of Vittore Carpaccio. By the Baroque era, master artists had brought genre painting to a whole new level of artistry. One of these influential artists was Annibale Carracci (fig. 1). Carracci came from a family of painters from Bologna. His brother, Agostino (1557-1602), and their cousin Ludovico (1555-1619) were also important figures in the art world. They were especially influential in the movement against Mannerism. Together they established a private painting school Academia degli Incamminati, which means Academy of the Progressives (Pioch, Carracci). Annibale was soon recognized as the most talented of the three, and was summoned to Rome in 1595 to decorate the Farnese Gallery. Although his ceiling frescoes there are known as his masterpiece, Annibale also created other equally exquisite works. His late paintings included landscapes, whereas his earlier works seemed to concentrate on genre painting. Annibale Carracci s Butcher s Shop (fig. 2) is probably the best known of his genre paintings. With this piece, Annibale wished to show the real job of a butcher, unlike earlier artists. Therefore, the tone of the painting is serious, the images of raw meat being rather crude in their realistic detail. He also uses elements of perspective in order to establish a convincing space. The ceiling beams and foreshortening lend to this view. This painting is predominately warm colors of red and brown, and objects are accentuated with natural highlights. One of the butchers stares directly at the viewer, an element seen in much of genre painting. We feel like an outsider to the scene, merely observing what is taking place. Another example of Annibale s genre work is the Bean Eater (c. 1584). This painting depicts a rather disheveled peasant man as he is spooning beans into his mouth. The most powerful aspect of the work is the fact Annibale has stopped him in mid-action. This strengthens the sense of realism, and coveys a feeling of immediacy (Held and Posner 73). The still life elements in the painting are depicted with careful artistry and accuracy, and the lighting effects are also extremely naturalistic. With the combination of the figure, the setting, and the pose, Annibale creates a new look at the simple life of a peasant. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was another Italian artist who made a great impact on Baroque genre painting. He is mainly known for his abandonment of classical idealism. Caravaggio focused on painting subjects that were dramatic, and depicted them in a realistic nature. He received several commissions early in his life, and eventually had several confrontations with the authorities. Although he led a rather short life, Caravaggio was one of the most influential painters in art history. He was among the first artists to introduce genre painting to Italy. Caravaggio s most famous genre work is probably The Fortune Teller (fig. 3). This scene shows a sophisticated young man getting his fortune told by a young woman. She cleverly strokes his hand as she takes a ring from his finger. Caravaggio uses the clothing of the two figures to convey their character. The man wears the refined wardrobe of a gentleman, whereas the girl is in the typical garb of a gypsy. They are represented with a great sense of naturalism, especially with the various textures of fabric. These individuals were not meant to represent particular people, nor was the setting to show a specific place. Caravaggio had wished to portray a certain type of person and their role in ordinary life, rather than an episode between two distinct characters. Therefore, in this painting we simply see a depiction of an everyday tale (Bauer and Prater 31). The Cardsharps (fig. 4) is another of Caravaggio s genre masterpieces. It was this painting that first gained him fame. In this composition, there are two young men who are playing cards, with a rather crude looking man behind one of them. This scoundrel is gesturing to his partner across the table, in order to inform him of the next move that will be made. This man in the foreground is reaching behind his back to retrieve the card that will beat that move. This scene can refer to the story of the Prodigal Son, suggesting a loss of innocence as a man has given in to temptation. Again, Caravaggio focuses not on the specific character, but on the issue and surrounding notions that propel the people to the situation he presents. This is referenced in his lack of a recognizable background, along with the representative dress of the individuals. The work of Caravaggio had a particularly dramatic impact on Spanish art. His chiaroscuro technique, use of color, and lighting effects stimulated artists to create new works, including genre paintings. Bartolom Esteban Murillo (fig.5) was probably the most famous Spanish painter of his time. Spending the majority of his life in his birthplace of Seville, Murillo developed a warm, atmospheric style. He is known for his depiction of biblical subjects, as well as his excellence in creating genre scenes. Murillo s genre painting may be regarded as some of his most exceptional work. Today they are deemed poignant, as he portrayed peasant children in a new, more touching manner. One of his genre pieces is titled The Young Beggar (fig. 6). In this piece, we see a young poverty-stricken boy as he sits on the ground. The scene is nearly pathetic, evoking feelings of sympathy. Murillo paints it in realistic detail, from the pottery and textures of the clothing to the young figure. He uses lighting reminiscent of Caravaggio s, with a sharp contrast between light and dark. Each element in the composition lends to the impression of poverty, such as the tattered garments and dull, vacant room. Murillo was probably one of the only Baroque painters to depict the poor with such compassion, even though he was a wealthy man himself. The painting is united with the warm colours of the earth (Bauer and Prater 68). A recently unearthed example of Murillo s excellence at genre painting is Four Figures on a Step (fig. 7). The scene shows four peasants, one of which is raising her veil. In classical times, this movement suggested fidelity. However, during the time of Murillo, the gesture could have indicated procurement (Murillo). When looking primarily at the faces of these figures, we see that each wears a different expression upon their face. There appears to be a wide range of emotion depicted among them, increasing the rather mysterious nature of the piece. Another strange element of the painting is the pair of glasses worn by the woman on the right. Eyeglasses were often worn during the Baroque period, sometimes with just clear glass lenses (Murillo). This was said to lend the wearer an air of wisdom or learning (Murillo). She stares directly at the viewer, and it seems as though she is passing judgement through this piercing glance. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Vel zquez (fig. 8), another Spanish painter, is considered one of the greatest Baroque artists. He worked as an apprentice to Francisco Pacheco, and eventually became the official painter to Philip IV. After some extensive traveling to major art centers such as Italy, Venice, and Rome, he developed a style obviously influenced by master painters. Vel zquez combined chiaroscuro with a distinctive modeling technique, and used color, light, space and line expertly. He expressed realism like no other, only selecting the essential strokes to convey forms. Although his subject material varied over the course of his life, Vel zquez particularly excelled in painting landscapes, religious scenes, mythological subjects, and genre. Concentrating on genre painting early in his career, Vel zquez would also create bodegones , paintings that combined genre and still-life. Often these works would have a religious scene within them. An example of this is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618), that he painted when he was only 19. Although this painting refers to the Bible, it can also be considered one of Vel zquez s genre pieces. It is set within a kitchen, and includes several elements of still life, such as fish, eggs, and cloves of garlic. Christ is shown in the upper right corner of the painting, which could either be a reflected area, or simply a view into another room. This scene is one of calmness and serenity, whereas the foreground imagery evokes feelings of tension. We have a close-up view of these figures, and they are painted in a brilliant, contrasting light (Piper 210).Another of Vel zquez s early genre paintings is Old Woman Cooking Eggs (fig. 9). This painting exhibits several characteristics of Caravaggio s style, including his use of chiaroscuro, realism, and extreme detail of still-life. However, unlike Caravaggio, Vel zquez is capable of detaching the viewer from the scene taking place. He is not sympathetic with peasants as Murillo. Instead, he creates an impartial view into their life (Held and Posner 179-180). Genre painting soon became appreciated in France as well. Many of the early works of Georges de La Tour focus on genre themes. La Tour began receiving commissions rather early in his life, and in 1639 was named court painter to King Louis XIII (Stokstad 775). La Tour was probably influenced by the style of Caravaggio, as can be seen in his lighting effects, realism, and dramatic chiaroscuro. His early paintings are naturalistic, but later progress to the more geometric, simplified style he is known for. La Tour is especially known for his night scenes, which are usually lit by a candle or torch. It is rather difficult to document La Tour s early career, so there are many disagreements about the chronology and authenticity of the work attributed to him. La Tour s most famous genre painting is probably Flea Catcher (fig. 10). This work shows how La Tour could create a successful composition with merely one simplified figure. The woman s posture and gestures stand out, especially the curled fingers of her hands and the bent head. The light comes from a single candle, a device La Tour used frequently. It is used to outline the form, more so than model it in three dimensions (Piper 193). She is silhouetted against the dull, modulated background. With this treatment, a rather dirty subject becomes more monumental.
Hurdy-Gurdy Player (c.1620-1630) is another of La Tour s early genre paintings. It depicts a blind man with a hurdy-gurdy, a musical instrument. With this work, we see a good example of the manner in which La Tour used color. Although his palette usually consisted of gentle hues, he would occasionally use hot reds or oranges in smaller areas, like in the hat of the player. This use of color and sense of brutal realism is suggestive of Spanish painting, Murillo in particular (Bauer and Prater 44). Hurdy-Gurdy Player is one of La Tour s few compositions in which he uses natural light. Other French genre painters included the Le Nain brothers: Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu. They were born in Laon, France, but all ended up moving to Paris by 1630, and were among the founders of the Academy (Piper 192). All three worked together, and their paintings are signed only with the family surname (Hartt 711). Their studio received a number of commissions, and soon they got a reputation for their portraits. Today they are known particularly for their scenes of everyday peasant life, which are characterized by their realism, seriousness, and dignity. The Cart (fig. 11) is attributed to Louis, who is probably the most talented of all three, and therefore created the most convincing genre scenes. This one depicts peasants performing their daily activities; however, they appear to be solemn, almost like religious subjects. The figures are separated into groups; the one top of the cart showing revered distinction (Hartt 711). Although the peasants are split apart, they are like the verses of a song praising the beauties of rural life a song sung by a city dweller of high society (Bauer and Prater 43). The entire composition is rather calm, with the figures looking directly at the viewer. It is richly painted, and everything is cast in a grayish light, which is characteristic of Louis style.Another example of Louis skill at depicting peasants is Peasant Family (fig. 12). The subjects fit the description of a peasant, but look dignified and serious. The details in the painting are depicted very realistically, down to the elements of still life. The family looks directly at the viewer, almost as if they are silently waiting for a response to their challenging gaze. There is even a slight element of sadness in this piece, which is reinforced by the silvery colors and muted tones. Genre paintings were especially embraced in the United Netherlands during the seventeenth century. This is mostly because the paintings were an outlet for the new Dutch republic to celebrate its emerging national identity by depicting many aspects of its society (Johannes Vermeer ). They placed a significant amount of worth on the painting of everyday life, and it was in fact a major element of their lives. However, the peasants and low-life scenes presented in the previous paintings is not present in Dutch genre. They focused on depicting leisure activities in upper-middle-class interiors, and seldom showed images of production, such as farming. These Dutch painters were probably the most talented at painting nature realistically, for they had quite a keen sense of observation. Symbolism and hidden meanings are seen in these genre works more than ever before. It has been said that the naturalism of Dutch genre may veil its sophistication because of its multiple associations (Sutton et al. 21). They produced a large number of these paintings during the Baroque period, therefore some scholars deem their work monotonous (Hartt 733). Nevertheless, the seventeenth-century Dutch masters remain the most significant of all genre painters. One important Dutch artist is Gerard Dou (1613-1675). He first trained with his father, who was a glass-engraver. In 1628 he went to Rembrandt s studio, and was a founding member of the Leiden Guild of St. Luke (Sutton et al. 181). He is known for creating small, meticulously painted portraits, still lifes, as well as genre pieces. In his earlier works, Dou would repeat certain motifs within a scene, much like Vermeer. Each of his genre paintings had a particular significance, both compositional and symbolic.The Young Mother (fig. 13) is an example of Dou s skill at depicting an everyday activity. We see a young mother as she prepares to nurse her small child. The child s attention is diverted as a young girl rings a bell beside her. This painting is typical of Dou s mature style, with smooth brushwork and chiaroscuro. As is frequently seen in Baroque art, Dou uses a tapestry curtain to sweep the eye up. His textures and patterns are completed with exquisite detail, and it was said he accomplished this with a magnifying glass. Rembrandt is mostly responsible for this fully developed style (Sutton et al. 185-6). Another of Dou s genre paintings is Girl Chopping Onions (fig. 14). Many of his scenes included women preparing food, as we can see here. The major underlying subject of this piece is innocence contrasted with experience. This child does not realize the sexual connotations of certain household items. For example, the dead bird hanging in the background stands for copulation, and the abandoned birdcage is symbolic of the lack of integrity. Even the candle can be interpreted as a phallic image, along with the vegetables (Sutton et al. 184). Pieter de Hooch is another wonderful Dutch genre painter from the seventeenth century. He first began studying with Nicolaes Berchem, an Italian landscape artist. After being a painter and servant to Justus de la Grange, de Hooch joined the Guild of St. Luke in Delft. He is known for his paintings that show middle-class people indoors or in bright courtyards (Sutton et al. 214). These settings are usually very orderly and precise, and are depicted in an extremely naturalistic manner. The compositions he created were usually meant to show domestic tranquility, as well as give a sense of a secure environment. It is also important to note that de Hooch had a significant influence on Vermeer. Maid and Child in a Delft Courtyard (fig. 15) is one of the earliest dated de Hooch paintings. The purpose behind this piece rests in the tablet over the entryway, which reads: This is St. Jerome s valley, should you wish to resort to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised. 1614 (Sutton et al. 219). That statement can be applied to many of de Hooch s paintings, as he focused on the association between servant and mistress. This work in particular could have influenced Vermeer to paint his The Little Street (1657-8). However, de Hooch would frequently use children in his paintings, whereas Vermeer never involved a child in his compositions (Slatkes 124).De Hooch would often use the same elements in his paintings, as can be seen in comparing the last work I discussed to Courtyard with an Arbor and Drinkers (1658). We see the same arch and stone tablet over it, but other portions of the composition are altered. The rather domestic scene of a mother and daughter is replaced with an arbor and three figures drinking wine. We have a sense of brilliant sunlight, coupled with highly saturated colors, which is characteristic of the works painted in Delft.Of all Dutch genre painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is certainly one of the best known. Although he only produced thirty-four paintings which survive, these works had a powerful influence on Baroque art. Unfortunately, little is known about his life, since he rarely left his native city of Delft. It is understood that Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura to create an accurate sense of perspective in his compositions. Photography was later accepted as an art form because of this early development. Therefore, one could say that Vermeer s work started a new phase in the history and criticism of art (Slatkes 12). Vermeer s most honored painting is probably The Milkmaid (fig. 16). Although he usually shows elegant figures in sophisticated settings, in this work Vermeer depicts a simple maid doing her daily tasks in the simple setting of a kitchen. The composition appears rather direct, despite the various symbolic images. For instance, she pours the milk from one container to another, which represents Temperance. However, instead of giving it a sense of caution as earlier artists, Vermeer simply uses it to show an appreciation of temperance itself (Slatkes 33). His palette consists of saturated, earthy tones, with the light source coming from the window. The Lacemaker (fig. 17) is another of Vermeer s more popular works. It depicts a young woman as she concentrates on her task of making lace. He researched lacemaking prior to painting this piece, in order to create each element realistically. The muted background emphasizes the bright color of the thread, which rests on an Oriental rug. Light enters from the right, emanating from an unseen source. It falls upon the figure, modeling it in shades of light and dark (Bauer and Prater 138). We can see the influence of the camera obscura in this work by the foreground of the painting, which looks like an unfocused photograph. With these kinds of examinations, we are able to grasp the concept of genre painting more easily. However, genre reflects several aspects of a society, and it would be impossible to understand the multiple meanings of each work. The scholars who attempt to connect low-life imagery with emblems, iconographic handbooks, and abstruse theoretical conceits are not going to figure out anything by relating Baroque art to conventional text (Wind 24). I believe that the connotations that are implied within are equally important, but we should not over-analyze the hidden meanings. By taking what we know about the artist, country, political issues and other influences of the time period, I feel a fairly accurate conclusion can be drawn about the subject matter of a painting. But even more important, genre painting was a pictorial record of the daily life of a society. The treatment of everyday subjects with naturalism and accuracy gives us a sense of the character of 17th-century people and what happened to them on a daily basis. This, I believe, is more significant than any other aspect of genre. Where the interpretation of particular images in a painting can differ greatly, there is no challenge to the truth that is life. BIBLIOGRAPHY Bauer, Hermann, and Andreas Prater. Painting of the Baroque. Edited by I. F. Walther. English translation, I. Flett, G. Parker. Cologne; New York: Taschen, 1997. Genre Painting. Encarta Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft. 1997. Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Vol. 2. 3rd Ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989. Held, Julius S., and Donald Posner. 17th and 18th Century Art. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1972. Johannes Vermeer and Dutch Scenes of Daily Life in the 1600s. National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C. Online. Available: http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg51/gg51-over1.html. 12 Sept. 1998. Murillo: Four Figures on a Step. Kimbell Art Museum. Dallas, Texas. Online. Available: http://www.kimbellart.org/murillo.htm. 24 Sept. 1998. Pioch, Nicolas. WebMuseum: Carracci. Online. Available: http://www.hol.gr/wm/paint/auth/ carracci/. 10 Sept. 1998. Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. New York: Crescent, 1995. Slatkes, Leonard J. Vermeer and His Contemporaries. New York: Abbeville, 1981. Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995. Sutton, Peter C; et al. Masters of Seventeenth Century Dutch Genre Painting. Philadelphia: Museum of Art, 1998. Wind, Barry. Genre in the Age of the Baroque: A Resource Guide. New York: Garland, 1991.