From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Genre works, also called genre scenes or genre views, are pictorial representations in any of various media that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Such representations may be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Some variations of the term genre works specify the medium or type of visual work, as in genre painting, genre prints, genre photographs, and so on.
Genre painting, also called genre scene or petit genre, depicts aspects of everyday life by portraying ordinary people engaged in common activities. One common definition of a genre scene is that it shows figures to whom no identity can be attached either individually or collectively - thus distinguishing them from history paintings and portraits. A work would often be considered as a genre work even if it could be shown that the artist had used a known person - a member of his family, say - as a model. In this case it would depend on whether the work was likely to have been intended to be perceived as a portrait by the artist - sometimes a rather subjective question. The depictions can be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Because of their familiar and frequently sentimental subject matter, genre paintings have often proven popular with the bourgeoisie, or middle class. The petit name contrasts this with the grand genre, history painting. Genre themes appear in nearly all art traditions. Painted decorations in ancient Egyptian tombs often depict banquets, recreation, and agrarian scenes, and even medieval prayer books such as the Book of Hours (see Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc De Berry) are decorated with "peasant" scenes of daily life.
The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder made peasants and their activities the subject of many of his paintings, and genre painting was to flourish in Northern Europe in Brueghel's wake. Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, David Teniers, Aelbert Cuyp, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter De Hooch were among the many painters specializing in genre subjects in the Netherlands during the 17th century. In Italy, a "school" of genre painting was stimulated by the arrival in Rome of the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer in 1625. He acquired the nickname "Il Bamboccio" and his followers were called the Bamboccianti. Louis le Nain was an important exponent of genre painting in 17th century France, where the 18th century would bring a heightened interest in the depiction of everyday life, whether through the romanticized paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, or the careful realism of Chardin. In England, William Hogarth conveyed social criticism and moral lessons through canvases that told stories of ordinary people, often in serial form. Spain had an old tradition standing since before The Book of Good Love of social observation and commentary based on the Old Roman Latin tradition and to this many of its painters,and illuminated miniature painters followed work. The Spanish artist Francisco de Goya used genre painting as a medium for dark commentary on the human condition. Japanese ukiyo-e paintings are rich in depictions of people at leisure and at work, as are Korean paintings, particularly those created in the 18th century.
While genre painting began, in the 17th century, with representations by Europeans of European life, the invention and early development of photography coincided with the most expansive and aggressive era of European imperialism, in the mid-to-late 19th century, and so genre photographs, typically made in the proximity of military, scientific and commercial expeditions, often also depict the people of other cultures that Europeans encountered throughout the world.
Although the distinctions are not clear, genre works should be distinguished from ethnographic studies, which are pictorial representations resulting from direct observation and descriptive study of the culture and way of life of particular societies, and which constitute one class of products of such disciplines as anthropology and the behavioural sciences.