Genre Art

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Genre Art


a category in the fine arts which deals with subjects from the everyday life of private individuals and society (usually contemporary to the artist). Genre painting plays a leading role in genre art. Genre subject matter is also widespread in prints and in sculpture, principally, small sculpture. As genre art developed, its distinctive possibilities became apparent—from authentic portrayal of people’s relationships and behavior in everyday life, as observed by the artist, to profound disclosure of the inner meaning and sociohistorical content of phenomena in daily life.’

Genre scenes, which have been known since antiquity, became a specific form of art in the countries of the Orient in the period of feudalism, and in Europe in the period of the formation of bourgeois society. In modern times, the periods in which genre art flourished are connected with the rise of democratic and realistic artistic trends, with the interest of artists in extensive spheres of the life and the work of the people, and with the raising of important social problems in art.

Scenes of hunting, processions, and rituals were already known in primitive art. In the wall paintings and reliefs of the ancient Orient, emperors and nobles, craftsmen and tillers of the soil were often portrayed in characteristic scenes from their lives. Ancient Greek vase paintings and reliefs frequently deal with vividly and directly observed scenes from everyday life, akin to ancient lyrical poetry and comedy (with uncomplicated subject matter and relationships of the characters concerned). Scenes from everyday life played an important part in Hellenistic and ancient Roman wall paintings, mosaics, and sculpture (especially small sculpture), an indication of the increasing interest of art in ordinary developments and the private lives of people.

In medieval art, genre scenes and concrete observations of everyday life usually arose with the development of secular humanistic trends within the framework of the predominant religious philosophy and were frequently woven into religious and allegorical compositions. They are widespread in wall paintings, reliefs, and miniatures, both in Europe (the reliefs in the Naumburg Cathedral, Germany, mid-13th century; Russian 17th-century murals) and in Asia (the wall paintings of Ajanta in India, mostly 5th and 6th centuries; the reliefs in the temple at Borobudur in Indonesia, about 800 A.D., and Angkor in Cambodia, tenth-13th centuries; the secular miniature schools in Iraq, Middle Asia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and India, which evolved between the 13th and 16th centuries). The appearance of the first genre paintings in China (Ku k’ai-chih, fourth century) are connected with the religious and philosophical ideas of moral perfection and the affirmation of the ideal of nobility and majesty as standards for man’s behavior in everyday life. The T’ang dynasty (seventh-tenth centuries) saw the development of schools of Chinese genre painting and the appearance of genre artists (Yen Li-pen, Chou Fang, Han Huang) who portrayed scenes from palace life, often with great authenticity and intimacy. During the Sung dynasty (tenth-13th centuries), Chinese genre artists (Li T’ang, Su Han-ch’en) began to depict the life of the people in paintings filled with humor and acute observations. Genre painting developed in approximately the same way in Japan and Korea.

Beginning with the Renaissance in Europe, first in Italy (A. Lorenzetti—14th century) and then in the Netherlands (J. van Eyck, D. Bouts, Geertgen tot Sint Jans—15th century) and in other European countries, religious and allegorical scenes in painting began to acquire more and more vivid details from everyday life and to tell stories of the events, joys, and sorrows of real life. In the 15th century, miniatures (the Limbourg brothers in France), engravings (M. Schongauer in Germany), and secular wall paintings (F. Cossa in Italy) began to portray the workaday life of the people, which was taken to be an inseparable part of the great real world opened up to man. In Italian 16th-century painting (mainly among the Venetians—V. Carpaccio, Giorgione, J. Bassano), genre art began gradually to separate from religious and allegorical genres, while retaining their system of imagery. The separation of genre art was much more intensive in the Netherlands (Q. Massys, Lucas van Leyden, Pieter Aertsen), where it portrayed, now with moralizing humor, now with convincing simplicity, specific features of the behavior and background of people from various social strata. The portrayal of everyday life in the genre canvases of the Dutchman P. Brueghel and in the etchings of the Frenchman J. Callot gave expression to broad sociophilosophical ideas, the pleasures of peaceful life, and the tragedy of historical conflicts, injustice, and violence. The many facets of response to the everyday life of the people were reflected in the combination of authenticity and grotesquerie, drama and humor, and intimacy and epic scope. European genre art took final shape in the 17th century against the background of the struggle between the feudal and bourgeois ways of life, asserting itself as the art of real life and everyday events, as a socially significant phenomenon. Caravaggio in Italy and his followers in many other countries demonstratively contrasted the rough prose of the everyday life of the lower classes of society, which they extolled, to the idealized, unrealistic, and artificial images of mannerism and academism. The further development of genre art in the 17th century was marked by the desire to combine specificity in the portrayal of ordinary life with a poetic response to it in keeping with the artist’s social ideals. In Flanders, P. P. Rubens and J. Jordaens chose genre art as a means for the epic portrayal of the mighty vital forces of the people and the colorfulness of their way of life. In France, L. Le Nain strove to portray not only the characteristic features of the outward appearance and the workaday life of the peasants but also their inherent moral staunchness and sense of dignity. In Spain, D. Velazquez imparted lofty poetry to realistic scenes from court life and the life of the people, conveying the emotional relation between man and his environment and contrasting the refinement and class pride of the aristocracy to the healthy and natural beauty of the common people. Genre art became the predominant form in the first bourgeois country, Holland, elevating the domestic way of life that developed there to a social ideal. Dutch genre painting exalted the way of life of the peasants and the townspeople—a way of life with a distinctive mood and an intimate atmosphere of peaceful comfort (the paintings of A. van Ostade, C. Fabritius, P. de Hooch, J. Vermeer, G. Terborch, G. Metsu).

In the 17th century a division appeared between the democratic trend in genre art, which sometimes came close to being aware of the contradictions in life (the drawings of Rembrandt and a number of the paintings by the Flemish artist A. Brouwer, the Dutchman J. Steen, and the Italians S. Rosa and G. M. Crespi), and the trend that idealized life, painting idyllic pictures of the good life of peasants (D. Teniers in Flanders) or of the wealthy townspeople (C. Netscher in Holland). The victory of the idealization trend led to the decline of Dutch and Flemish genre art toward the end of the 17th century.

Genre art of the 18th century saw the rise of the bourgeois domestic type and the antifeudal satirical type in contrast to the idyllic pastorals and “gallant scenes” of the aristocratic art of the rococo (F. Boucher in France) with its embellished images and conventional situations. The satirical paintings and etchings of the Englishman W. Hogarth, which caustically ridiculed society’s morals and strove for a detailed theatrical presentation of genre scenes, laid the foundation for the sociocritical trend in genre art. In France, J. A. Watteau and J. H. Fragonard (who often dealt with a realistically reconsidered “gallant genre”) introduced psychological subtlety and keenness of observation of real life into genre art. The intimate, uncomplicated subject matter of the paintings of J. B. Chardin is imbued with an inspired poetry of domestic life. The sentimental canvases of J. B. Greuze were a polemical affirmation of the third estate’s standards of family morals. The realistic tendencies of bourgeois genre art were manifested in the art of Italy (P. Longhi), Germany (D. Chodowiecki), Sweden (P. Hilleström), and Poland (J. P. Norblin). On the borderline between the 18th and 19th centuries the Spaniard F. Goya created his genre compositions, filled with passion and drama, imparting heroic monumentality to his portraits of common people.

In Russia the development of genre art in the second half of the 18th century is connected (except for the “domestic scene” of I. Firsov’s The Young Painter) with an interest in the peasants. Here, too, the idyllically idealized rural scenes (I. M. Tankov) are in sharp contrast to the loving and precise portrayal of the traditional peasant way of life in the paintings of M. Shibanov and the harsh, uncompromising truthfulness in the portrayal of the poverty of the peasants in the watercolors of I. A. Ermenev.

In the 16th to 18th centuries genre art flourished in a number of countries of Asia—in the miniatures of Iran (Riza-i-Abbasi) and India (Manak, Ramlal), imbued with subtle elegance and vivid observations of life; in Korean painting, which gave keen and precise portrayals of scenes from the life of the working people (Kim Hong-do); and especially in Japanese painting and drawing, which reflected the life of all groups in society with extraordinary precision, variety, and wit (Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai).

In the 19th century, artists of the democratic trend turned to genre art as programmatic art, by means of which it was possible to evaluate critically and expose social relationships and moral standards that prevailed in the bourgeois-aristocratic society and their manifestations in everyday life, to defend the rights of working and oppressed people, and to involve the spectator as a direct witness of the social contradictions and conflicts that filled everyday life. In the early part of the century an important role in the aesthetic affirmation of ordinary things was played by the truthful but one-sided, charmingly poetic simplicity and touching sincerity of the portrayal of radiant, cloudless scenes from the everyday life of the peasantry and of urban democratic circles (A. G. Venetsianov and the Venetsianov school in Russia; G. C. Bingham and W. S. Mount in the United States; D. Wilkie in Scotland; and the painters of the Biedermeier school—G. F. Kersting, and K. Spitzweg in Germany, F. Waldmüller in Austria, C. Købke in Denmark). The French romanticists (T. Géricault, A. G. Decamps) brought a spirit of protest to genre art and generalization and psychological content to the portrayals of common people. These quests were developed in the mid-19th century by H. Daumier, who added to them high skill in portraying social types, keen analytical study of the life of all social strata, and satirical exposure of the moral principles of the bourgeois world. The principles of sociocritical realism that were developed by Daumier acquired a new form in the latter part of the century. G. Courbet and J. F. Millet in France, A. Menzel and W. Leibl in Germany, G. Fattori in Italy, J. Israels in Holland, W. Homer in the United States, and the Belgian sculptor C. Meunier imparted to genre art an impressive power of authenticity and generalization of directly observed everyday scenes and created portraits, convincing by their concrete details from real life, of peasants and workers weighed down by the burden of labor but spiritually unbroken and filled with dignity.

In addition to the satirical exposure of serfdom and sympathy for the unfortunate, the genre art of Russian critical realism also revealed a profound and accurate understanding of the inner world of its subjects, extensive narrative qualities, and detailed dramatic development of the theme and the relationships of the characters. These features, clearly developed in the mid-19th century in the paintings of P. A. Fedotov and the drawings of A. A. Agin and of the Ukrainian artist T. G. Shevchenko, filled with burning ridicule and pain, were adopted in the 1860’s by the democratic genre artists V. G. Perov and P. M. Shmel’kov, who combined direct and trenchant topicality with profound lyrical feeling for the tragedies in the lives of the peasantry and the urban poor. This served as the foundation for the appearance of a new stage in genre art, the art of the peredvizhniki (the “Wanderers,” a progressive art movement), whose works played a leading role and provided an unusually complete and accurate picture of the life of the people in the second half of the 19th century, penetrating deeply into the basic patterns of the time. A broad, typified picture of the everyday life of all strata of Russian society was given by G. G. Miasoedov, V. M. Maksimov, K. A. Savitskii, V. E. Makovskii, and, with special depth and scope, by I. E. Repin, who showed not only the barbarous oppression of the people but also the mighty life-forces that lay dormant in them and the heroism of the fighters for their liberation. This kind of breadth of objectives in genre painting frequently made it akin to historical composition. The contradictions of capitalism, the growing class divisions in the rural areas, the life and ’struggles of the working class and the rural poor were reflected in the paintings of N. A. Iaroshenko, N. A. Kasatkin, S. V. Ivanov, and A. E. Arkhipov in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The genre art of the peredvizhniki evoked a broad response in the art of the Ukraine (N. K. Pimonenko, K. K. Kostandi), Byelorussia (Iu. M. Pen), Latvia (J. Rosentäls, J. Valters), Georgia (G. I. Gabashvili, A. R. Mrevlishvili), and Armenia (E. M. Tatevosian).

The success of democratic realism in genre art in the 19th century was connected with the rise and development of the artistic culture of many peoples in the course of their struggle for national and social liberation. Emotionally charged portrayals of the life of the people were produced by M. Munkácsy in Hungary, K. Purkynë in Bohemia, A. and M. Gierymski and J. Chelrnonski in Poland, T. Aman and N. Grigorescu in Rumania, I. Myrkvichka in Bulgaria, J. F. de Almeida Junior in Brazil, and L. Romañach in Cuba. Genre art, responding as it did to the main tasks of sociocritical art of the 19th century, became widespread everywhere at that time and was popular with a most diverse public, which looked for a reflection of their own way of life in the works of genre art. Features of genre art became an integral part of portrait, landscape, historical, and battle painting. At the same time, the successes of genre art encouraged the appearance of salon-type works, of “high society,” philistine-naturalistic, exotic-decorative, and other varieties of genre art. There were increasing tendencies in genre art to portray religious-patriarchal or bourgeois morals and to produce works filled with idyllic sentimentality or amusing anecdotal content. The weakening of the sociocritical trend is evident in the work of a number of major genre artists who gave vivid and accurate portrayals of characteristic features of the life of the people (J. Bastien-Lepage and L. A. Lher-mitte in France; L. Knaus and B. Vautier in Germany; K. E. Makovskii in Russia). In contrast to the traditional forms of genre art that were gradually losing depth and social acute ness, a new type of genre painting, developed in France by E. Manet, E. Degas, A. Renoir, and H. Toulouse-Lautrec, began to assert itself in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Many of its characteristics were related to impressionism. It stressed the beauty of ordinary things, transformed by art; expressiveness of seemingly chance, fragmentary, unexpected aspects of life, of instantly captured situations and changeable moods and feelings; sharp characterizations of the appearance and habitual movements of the protagonists; and an interest in people who are outside society’s norms (the artistic bohemia, the demiworld, people from the “lower depths”). Genre artists in many other countries adopted some of the stylistic features of this type of genre painting, striving to combine breadth of perception of the life of the people with fresh and unexpected aspects of it (M. Liebermann in Germany; E. Werenskiold and C. Krohg in Norway; A. Zorn and E. Josephson in Sweden; W. Sickert in England; T. Eakins in the United States; V. A. Serov, F. A. Maliavin, and K. F. Iuon in Russia). Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, partially as a reaction to the fleeting quality of impressionist images, a trend arose toward expressing in pictures of everyday life stable principles, the elementary foundations of existence, and philosophical and symbolical content. This trend which elevated ordinary happenings to the level of timeless symbols and replaced narrative action by lyrical feeling, signified a break with the tradition of 19th-century genre art. It often gave expression to some sort of mystical substance of life (E. Munch in Norway, F. Hodíer in Switzerland), to romanticist impulses, flights from everyday life into spiritualized dreams (P. Gauguin in France; V. E. Borisov-Musatov and K. S. Petrov-Vodkin in Russia), or else to a sense of dissatisfaction and passionate protest against the humiliation of man (V. van Gogh, the young P. Picasso in France).

The sharp aggravation of social contradictions in all fields of life in the 20th century, wars and revolutions, the national movements for liberation, the turbulent development of industry and technology, and the growth of the cities, which radically changed the everyday life of millions of people, revived and revolutionized the genre form of art in the capitalist countries, imparted to it impulsiveness and militant purposefulness, a desire to dig fearlessly into all corners of life, to portray not only the misfortunes and sufferings of ordinary people but also their staunchness and willingness to struggle. These aims found expression in works of genre art in the first half of the 20th century by T. Steinlen in France, F. Brangwyn in England, K. Kollwitz in Germany, D. Rivera in Mexico, G. Bellows in the United States, G. Derkovits in Hungary, N. Balkanskii in Bulgaria, and the Belgian graphic artist F. Masereel. After World War II this trend was continued by R. Guttuso and A. Pizzinato in Italy, A. Fougeron and B. Taslitzky in France, and We no Makoto in Japan. It became characteristic of genre art to combine a heightened response to specific features of ordinary life with generalization, emotional content, and often with symbolism in the portrayal of characters and situations—thus giving direct expression to the artist’s likes and dislikes, world outlook, and social views. Unique schools of national genre art evolved in the emerging and developing countries of Asia and Africa, which progressed from imitativeness and stylization to a profound generalized reflection of the way of life of their people (A. Sher-Gil and K. K. Hebbar in India, K. Affandi in Indonesia, M. Sabri in Iraq, and the sculptors M. Mukhtar in Egypt, Kofi Antubam in Ghana, F. Idubor in Nigeria).

In Soviet art, genre art acquired new features, produced by the rise and development of socialist society. These features were historical optimism and affirmation of selfless labor and the new way of life based on the unity of social and personal principles. This unity is also what determines the fundamental closeness between genre and historical art, which frequently intermingle. Genre art played a very important role in the formation and development of Soviet art by giving a many-sided portrayal of the construction of socialism and communism, of the shaping of the spiritual world of Soviet people. From the very first years of Soviet power, artists (B. M. Kustodiev, I. A. Vladimirov) strove to portray the changes that the revolution had brought to the life of the country. In the 1920’s the Association of artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) arranged a number of exhibitions dedicated to the portrayal of Soviet everyday life, and its artists (E. M. Cheptsov, G. G. Riazhskii, A. V. Moravov, B. V. Ioganson) created a number of authentic typical images, showing the spiritual growth of Soviet people and their new relationships in everyday life. The work of A. A. Deineka and Iu. I. Pimenov, who belonged to the Association of Easel Painters (OST), began to acquire optimism and energy, which also characterized them later, in paintings dedicated to construction, industrial labor, and sport. The artistic explorations of the members of AKhRR and OST became an organic part of the joyous, life-affirming art of the 1930’s. The painters S. V. Gerasimov, A. A. Plastov, T. G. Gaponenko, V. G. Odintsov, and F. G. Krichevskii and the sculptor I. M. Chaikov portrayed the bright and colorful aspects of urban and collective farm life. The difficult life in the front lines and in the rear during the war, with its sorrows and joys, also finds expression in Soviet genre art (in the paintings of lu. M. Neprintsev, B. M. Nemenskii, A. I. Laktionov, V. N. Kostetskii; the graphic artists A. F. Pakhomov, L. V. Soifertis). The spiritual aspirations, enthusiasm of collective labor and the life of society, and the typical features of the way of life in the postwar years found expression in the paintings of T. N. Iablonskaia, S. A. Chuikov, F. P. Re-shetnikov, S. A. Grigor’ev, U. M. Dzhaparidze, and E. F. Kalnyn’ and the prints of L. A. H’ina. From the late 1950’s Soviet genre artists began to broaden their circle of observations of contemporary life, to portray the courage and willpower of Soviet people, gaining strength in constructive work and in overcoming difficulties. The everyday life of the people is revealed as rich and complex, imbued with significant thoughts and emotions in the work of G. M. Kor-zhev, V. I. Ivanov, E. E. Moiseenko, lu. P. Kugach, T. T. Salakhov, G. S. Khandzhian, E. K. Iltner, I. A. Zarin’, and I. N. Klychev and in the prints of G. F. Zakharov, V. M. Iurkunas, and V. V. Tolli. An important contribution to the realism of genre art has been made by the artists of socialist countries, who have given vivid portrayals of the development of new social relationships in the lives of their own peoples and depicted characteristic features of the way of life in their countries (C. Baba in Rumania, S. Venev in Bulgaria, W. Womacka in the German Democratic Republic, L. Fulla in Czechoslovakia, Nguen-Du’c-Nung in Vietnam, Kim Yong Chung in the Korean People’s Democratic Republic, Chiang Chao-Ho in the People’s Republic of China).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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