What is genre painting?

A conversation between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of Nicolaes Maes, The Lacemaker, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 45.1 x 52.7 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] In art history, there are different genres of painting. There’s landscape. There’s portraiture. There’s history painting, but there’s also a genre that’s called “genre.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Generally speaking, a genre painting is a scene of everyday life, and we’re looking at one now, by Nicolaes Maes, from the 17th century, from Holland. It’s a painting called “The Lacemaker,” where we see a woman, a mother, who’s concentrating on the lace that she is making, sitting by an open window, by the light, and her child in a 17th-century version of a high chair.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] The child is looking directly out at us, but this is not a portrait. This is not a representation of an individualized figure. It is about an everyday scene that we can all relate to, of a child and his mother or caretaker in this house.

Dr. Harris: [0:48] If we think about the history of European painting, we can think about the focus on religious subjects, of the life of Christ, of the lives of the saints, but in the 17th century we begin to have, especially in Holland, scenes of everyday life.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] And so you might ask, why does this develop? And in part, the answer is economic. Amsterdam was an economic hub. There was a growing middle class. People could afford paintings. People loved visual culture, and this is a modestly scaled painting that was meant to hang in somebody’s home.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] If you’re thinking about paintings for your home, you want a scene that’s going to be one that you can recognize and identify with and enjoy as part of the decoration of your home.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] And it might have some humor, and in fact, this little child in this high chair seems regal, as if he’s enthroned.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] On the other hand, there are also serious aspects here, including the concentration of the woman on what she’s making, the slight unruliness of her household, the things that have fallen off or have been taken off the high chair, possibly because the child was about to push them off and break them.

[1:53] We have this beautifully placed table, this jug or stein on it, the picture on the wall, the careful opening of the window, the sense of real clarity and geometry, and yet this informality at the same time.

Dr. Zucker: [2:07] The idea that a culture was interested in seeing itself, in having a mirror of its own everyday activities, is something that we’re all familiar with. If you turn on a situation comedy on television, these are reflections of our contemporary culture, just like this painting is.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] Although this one is idealized, the light coming in through the window beautifully illuminates the figure on the left; it is a carefully composed scene of reality.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] Look at the way that the red of the tablecloth, the red of the band of the hat, the red of the woman’s jacket, all these things create a sense of visual unity The beautiful deep green of the wainscoting; and look at the gorgeous soft shadow that is cast by the casement window.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] It is this interesting balance of artistry on the part of Nicolaes Maes, but also a glimpse of reality. It’s both ideal and real at the same time.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "What is genre painting?," in Smarthistory, May 11, 2022, accessed May 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/what-is-genre-painting/.