Research point: Genre painting

Updated on 2 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

5 June 2016. Feeling that I rather want to paint my own interior I embarked on some research regarding the painting of (external) rooms through the times, staring with the Dutch realist genre painters. In order to connect with my own mood I chose examples, where I believe I could read a connection between outer and inner spaces from a painting.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, genre painting deals with the realistic analysis of everyday life and is devoid of imagination, idealisation or a narrative . The period lasted from roughly 1500 until 1960. Its beginnings coincided with the Reformation, the decline of the importance of religious art and concomitant rise of private art lovers and customers (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010; Collins, n.d.(a)).
A famous early genre painter was the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys (1466-1530, Belgium), with his intriguing work “The Money Lender and His Wife” (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Quentin Matsys: “The Money Lender and His Wife”, 1514, oil on panel. Source: Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Matsys was well known for his exuberant realism in his depiction of the physical appearance and mental state of the people he portrayed in their surroundings, which made him one of the early caricaturists and thus of great interest to me. The above painting is full of religious and moral symbolism (Bloom, 2007). For the purpose of this exercise, however, we are supposed not to analyse the ideas behind a painting, but the technical aspects employed to let the viewer connect with the experience made by the portrayed persons. Most obvious in this task is the enormous detail in all parts of the painting, making the viewer a keen observer by sitting at the table with the couple. At the same time, the painter includes every possible support to the viewer as to the possible meaning of the painting. It is obvious that the couple are in a way concerned with the buying or selling of valuable items, since the man on the left appears to not only to guess at the value of the item he is holding in his left hand, but at the same time to practically “feel” the balancing vlaue of the coin in his right hand. It is very likely that a contemporary viewer will have felt more at home with the furnishings of the time, in particular they would have been able to read from it much more of the social status of the depicted couple. From my own perspective, if I did not know the title of the painting, I might be tempted to suspect, from the quietly worried look on the lady’s face, that financial problems are forcing a wealthy couple to sell some of their belongings.

Particularly appealing to me from a technical aspect is also the work of Baroque painter Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678, Netherlands) (Fig. 2). Linear perspective is masterly applied by him, so that the viewer feels an impulse to enter the spaces prepared for him. In the painting below, the artist includes many items on the way, some of which only partly visible, which make it easy and interesting to follow the sequence of rooms through the various doorways. Although clearly a genre painting, there is still a narrative. A cage is hanging from the archway, from which a parrot is about to leave (pointing towards a wealthy household, since the owning of exotic animals would not have been a regular sight at the time). The dog seems to be unsure whether he should be welcoming the visitor (the viewer?), more so than the cat with its arched back and the people sitting in the next room, who do not seem to pay any attention whatsoever to the newcomer. It also seems obvious that the people are not expecting visitors, since a dust mop has not been cleared away and something or other has not been picked up from the stairs. Shadows, running into the scenery in the first room, block the visitor’s step in the next room, and thus force the eye to follow a designed path. The room right at the back seems somewhat unconnected, also by design. In my impression it appears to suggest, even with the door open and warm, welcoming colours employed, that it is out of bounds for the visitor.

Figure 2. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten: “View of a Corridor”, 1662, oil on canvas. Source: Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675, Netherlands), on the other hand, draws the viewer into the painting below, “Officer and Laughing Girl” (Fig. 3), among other techniques, by his masterly transportation of a feeling of intimacy (Liedke, 2003; Collins, n.d.(b)). To me, the position of the soldier in the shade and his body posture suggest that he would not appreciate additional people at the table (technically, the placing of an object in the left or right foreground to create depth is known as “repoussoir” (Sloofman (2009)). The girl, on the other hand, appears to connect with the soldier only at a first glance. When examining her face more closely, her eyes look past the soldier and her smile does not appear totally honest. In my opinion, she feels uncomfortable in the soldier’s presence, which makes her hold onto the glass in her hand, and the (negative) space left between the two makes a viewer like me want to step into the encounter to save the girl some embarassment. I may be totally wrong, however.

Figure 3. Johannes Vermeer: “Officer and Laughing Girl”, 1657-58, oil painting. Source: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

18th century Rococo painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779, France) followed the tradition, but chose mundane, seemingly simple subjects. In the painting below (Fig. 4), the scenery seems a bit depressing. It appears that the lady’s everyday occupation includes an exhausting amount of peeling turnips. The viewer is drawn into the scene not least by a feeling of sympathy for the lady’s fate. Since she is very obviously not concentrating on her work, the artist provides the viewer with an opportunity to speculate about the reason. The meat cleaver on the chopping block (very cleverly highlighted by a tiny sport of white) is a very rough object to inlcude in a domestic scene. I suspect that it may be an allusion to war and thus it may not be difficult to guess at the thoughts of the woman. Technically, the painter made it very easy for the viewer to enter the scene via an open stretch of floor without real or symbolic obstructions.

Figure 4. Jean Siméon Chardin: “Woman Peeling Turnips”, c.1738, oil on canvas. Source: Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
For reasons of personal interest in caricature, I again include William Hogarth (1667-1764, England) (8), who became famous for his satirical view on the world (Benenson, 2010). Below a detail from his painting “The Gate of Calais” (Fig. 5). While part of a much larger scene, this detail carries all attributes of a genre painting. To me there appear to be several routes into this part of the painting, the strongest probably the giant lump of meat next to the horrible friar’s face, together with his greedy hands – the shape of which is probably replicated in the pointed ends of the portcullis, though which the head of a procession is visible.

Figure 5. William Hogarth: “O, The Roast Beef of Old England”, 1748, oil on canvas (detail). Source: William Hogarth (1667-1764) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Moving into the 19th century, I became aware of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) (Galitz, 2009), the leading realist painter in France at that time, and his painting “The Grain Sifters” (1854, Fig. 5). To me, the scene appears to be overly dramatic for the subject, while providing no way into the space for the viewer. To me, the girl in the red dress seems to carry a message on her back, reading: “We are not interested, leave us alone. We hate the work we do and we do not want you to see us doing it.” Which may be in line with Courbet’s interest in the working conditions of the poor.

Figure 5. Gustave Courbet: “The Grain Sifters”, 1854, oil on canvas. Source: Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Funnily enough, the style and subjects of genre painters seemed to be relatively resistant to major change and radical influence far into the 20th century. Max Liebermann (1847-1935) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011), for example, had no different view on domestic scenes than his colleagues in past centuries. August Macke (1887-1914) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005), during his incredibly short career to be ended by war, adapted his style somewhat to a mix of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, but in my opinion a funny out-of-place feeling of the subject remains (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. August Macke: “Two Girls”, 1913, oil on canvas. Source: August Macke (1887-1914) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe the defined limitedness of the subject does not allow a step to be made away from the traditional. Today, interestingly, any realistic portrayal of domestic life appears somewhat heroic, see e.g. the work of US artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978, USA) (Collins, n.d.(c)), one of the last representatives of genre painting, known as social realism (The Art Story, n.d.) during the early 20th century, before it finally died away.


Benenson, S. E. (2010) William Hogarth [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Bloom, J. An Inventory of Polarities: Quentin Metsys’s The Money Lender and His Wife [blog] [online]. John Bloom, San Francisco. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Chardin, J. B. (1738) Woman Peeling Turnips [oil on canvas] [online]. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Courbet, C. (1855) The Grain Sifters [oil on canvas] [online]. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(a)) Genre Painting [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(b)) Soldier and a Laughing Girl [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(c)) Norman Rockwell [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Galitz, K. C. (2009) Gustave Courbet [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Hogarth, W. (1748) O, the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) [oil on canvas] [online]. Tate Britain. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Macke, A. (1913) Two Girls [oil on canvas] [online]. Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Matsys, Q. (1514) The Money Lender and His Wife [oil on panel] [online]. Louvre, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Sloofman, H. (2009) Art Technique of the Week [blog] [online]. The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.) Social Realism [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2005) August Macke [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010) Genre Painting [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011) Max Liebermann [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

van Hoogstraten, S.D. (1662) View of a Corridor [oil on canvas] [online]. National Trust, Dyrham Park. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]Vermeer, J. (c. 1657) Officer and Laughing Girl [oil on canvas] [online]. The Frick Collection, New York. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]