The following introduction to genre painting is the first chapter of Wedmore's Handbook (for full details, see bibliography), which has been formatted for our website, and linked to other material on it. Page numbers and explanations have been given in square brackets, and illustrations and captions have been added. The chapter is of particular interest as a defence of such painting: "the honour which criticism has allowed so justly to such workers in the art of literature, it has latterly in England been minded to deny to such workers in the art of painting" (4) says Wedmore. Indeed, the day of Aestheticism had already dawned, and genre painting was being dismissed as a lower form of art. Wedmore himself feels that "genius has soared generally above the aims of the genre painter" (6); but, he argues, as in music, "there is place for the lighter and more gracious strains" (7) which have arisen especially in "compact and settled and highly civilised societies...." Looking at its European background, he sees how it was given shape by the Golden Age of Dutch art (that "unique period of manifold excellence" (7) in the seventeenth century, and speaks movingly of what its exponents can offer. [Click on all the images to enlarge them, and for more information where available.] — Jacqueline Banerjee.

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he art of Genre painting has for its first and plainest characteristic that it deals with the actual and the common world, and by its aspirations as well as its achievements belongs to that common world and to no other. Genre painting, like the fascinating heroine of Wordsworth — his truest ideal, after all, just because his sweetest and most living reality — claims only, first and last, to be

        not too bright and good
For human nature's daily food.
                 ["Perfect Woman"]

It records the struggles, the character, the happiness, the folly of men. It has in it what interests the intelligent curiosity of common folk. And, like the intimate studies of our greatest fiction, it is itself history, and itself analysis. It records, not the rare events which stated history chronicles, but the repeated incidents which we know to be events too. It quickens our senses to the spectacle, in actual life, not of a sensation scene, but of an every-day drama. [3/4] And the great Genre painters have been the ones to see that it is the every-day drama, after all, which must have our closest concern the personal experience, the habitual task, this or that love or liking. Life itself, or at all events the life of most of us, is a success or a failure according to the very closeness with which we lay hold on the incident or occasion of the hour: according as, by the power born or bred within us, we grasp truly or falsely the relations of passing things. But to grasp justly, we must observe keenly. The great Genre painters and the artists of analytic fiction have done a part of our observing for us as much as they could. Other gifted persons soared and dreamed; but these — their feet were very firm on the actual world.

The Blind Fiddler, by Sir David Wilkie, 1806.

Perhaps it might have been natural to reward with an equal fame those who in ways however different were working so much to a common end the furtherance of our knowledge of life and living character. But the honour which criticism has allowed so justly to such workers in the art of literature, it has latterly in England been minded to deny to such workers in the art of painting. It may be, indeed, that for the telling a particular message, for the expression of a particular order of thought, the language of the one art is fitted more finely than [4/5] that of the other. But if some of the truths of character and comedy are presented more easily in writing than in the arts of design, there are some also which the writer must at best labour heavily to present, while the skilled draughtsman or painter can tell them with his lightest touch.* This theme perhaps may be proper to the literature of fiction: that to painting. But many at least are within the rights of both to be dealt with necessarily under different conditions. The painters are few who have grappled successfully with the unfolding of a narrative, and there are not many writers who in the vivid presentation of incident have had a painter's success. But both hold sway over the realm of character: character formed and constant, or its lightest and most fleeting phase. For both there are the accidents of human feeling, and the droll or serious chances of changing circumstance.

Perhaps then, there is no substantial reason to be found why, with the honour bestowed on the Genre that is written, a comparative dishonour should rest on the Genre that is only painted. But there are reasonable explanations. The personal predilections [5/6] of influential men must have counted for much: and they have counted for most in matters of Art, with which the great public has been little concerned. The public voice has been little heard in questions of painting: it has been able to dictate in questions of literature. And there too, in Art, where the preferences of influential men have counted for most, there has been the least, perhaps, of critical shrewdness. The feeling and the sentiment of genius have usurped the office of criticism; and genius has soared generally above the aims of the genre painter. At one time Diderot and at another Hazlitt and Lamb had much to say for the painter of humble romance and of character and of society, but the philosophy of the Encyclopedist, so far as it dealt with Art, had until these last years of all in France been overpowered by the tremendous enthusiasm of Ingres for the Antique, and it is no matter of surprise that Hazlitt and Lamb, with their limited knowledge of Art and their very thoughts of it scattered and occasional, should have made, in our day, small stand with the body of their doctrine, against the splendid concentration of the critic and poet who revealed Turner.

And yet, wherever Genre painting of even moderate skill has been seen by those who have little [6/7] prejudice because they have no prepossession, it has been liked and looked at, whether it has been of the order that rose and was perfected in a single generation among the artists of Holland, in their unique period of manifold excellence, and was somewhat valued by the bourgeois even then, or of the order that gave pleasure to the great and gentle in the France of Louis XV., — to the restricted class, who cared for Art delicately — or of the kind that the citizen of London found piquant in the designs of Hogarth and that the Academy of 1878 displayed in its glittering decadence. And people too, not at all insensible, one hopes, to the serene beauty and grandeur of the art more purely imaginative — of the art that has best concerned itself with the union of high thought and noble form — have turned at times a little gratefully, and with no sense of necessary fall, to the keen or gracious work of the Genre painters. It is not always, in the realm of music, that wise men want to listen while "Beethoven's Titan mace"

Smites the immense to storm.
                    [Browning's "La Saisaz"]

Mozart and Schubert have also their most proper ministries. And in the art of painting, likewise, there is place for the lighter and more gracious strains. [7/8]

Genre painting has flourished most in compact and settled and highly civilised societies, not so large as to be very various, and at times when men's minds were little distracted either by political movement or religious aspiration. For the Genre painter has needed, both in himself and in those for whom he has wrought, some sense of the immediate and ultimate importance of the themes he deals with. Other men, other generations, may be pleased to style him trivial; but he, to see clearly and to chronicle well, must believe in the value and the interest of his work. No overpowering thought of larger issues of a future — of another world, of a different society — must hang over him as he records our moods and manners and gains his revelation into permanent character by the accidents of the passing minute. Somewhat conservative therefore, and on the whole content with itself, with its fortunes, with its daily ways, must be the society that offers to the artist of character and comedy his most favourable occasion. Such was the bourgeois society of Holland, in which Genre, the most realistic and veracious, reached perfection at a period when internal trouble was wellnigh over for the State. And such as far as social, not political, order is concerned, was the staid and quiet world of our earlier Georges; and [8/9] such, too the lighter society of France, the society of the court and the capital, which saw with delight the art of the Genre painter occupying itself with themes romantic and luxurious. The Revolution was the death of Genre painting. Society was scattered, exquisite manners gone, and Art was called upon to be heroic.

Left: Boeren liefdespaar (roughly, "Peasant Couple in Love" — probably the "Embrace" that Wedmore has in mind, by Hans Sebald Beham, 1521, © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, reproduced here by kind permission of the museum. Right: The Madonna at the Window by Hans Berthal Beham. Source: Scott 85. Scott wrote, "In technical manipulation it is as perfect as it is beautiful and unaffectedly natural in design" (86).

Yes, and even in lands and times which had no powerful and special school of Genre painting that we can recognise to-day, the art breaks out the best where there is the least of public preoccupation with questions of politics or pursuits of theology. Free gesture and manners vivacious and varied, among the people to be pourtrayed, are aids, almost necessities, to the artist in Genre, and the slow gait and relatively inflexible visage of the Teuton, must count for something in the comparative absence of Genre among the Germans. But here and there in Germany, and in the hands of artists who were themselves possessed of rich capacity for physical life, it does break out in some among the subjects say, of the Little Masters: in certain prints by the Behams [German brothers, artists of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century], for instance: chief in this wise among the company of Seven. Here and there there is a touch of comedy — character caught by the wayside, as this or that peasant or humble citizen goes onward on his path. [9/10] Here and there a romance: the fascination of sex, the passion of love, reduced to their simplest expressions, as in the Embrace, a little plate shorn of the common exaltations of classical mythology, pretending to no dignity and no tradition, but charged with the realities of intimate life.

Dives and Lazarus, early sixteenth century, after Bonifazio di Pitati. © National Gallery, downloaded and reproduced here under the Creative Commons agreement.

And what is it but Genre, breaking out, in forms poetical, courteous, and southern, in some among the paintings of the great Secular school of Italy, the school of Venice? It is true that the comedy of manners, the separate study of character apart from portraiture, was unknown to the Italians. But Giorgione and his fellows and followers live and speak to us to-day, in their rare works, partly in virtue of that art of theirs of carrying their poetry of selected form and august colour into the pourtrayal of scenes that were scenes of daily life to the Venetian: the music party in the garden; the courtyard's rest and silence. What they lacked in variety of characterisation, in the sense of comedy, they atoned for, if atonement was necessary, by the pure beauty of their work and its nobility. It may be that they painted passing pleasure, but, with humanity so organised, ordinary pleasure was extraordinary joy: it was profound and intense. And what is it again but the noble kind of Genre painting, when Bonifazio takes such a Bible theme as the passing of Lazarus before the feasting of Dives? Is Lazarus of a type we should desire; and does Dives sit self-condemned as a glutton of the East? Why no great feast is spread; only there is the daintiness of ripened fruits and draughts of wine in the evening light, and Dives, a comely and portly Venetian, rich in the experience of past pleasure and the expectation of more richest in the refined luxury of that hour and place sits happily and thoughtfully, looking at fair faces and listening to the words they say or sing. Later than Bonifazio [10/11] there came a poorer man Tiepolo. More than once there was need, even in Venetian art, for the work that records no heroic deeds nor distant aspirations, but the personal life, the vivid impression, the joys that men were born to, the sorrows even of no exceptional souls nor of strange fortunes; the record of habitual and familiar hours.

A Fireside Read, by William Mulready, c. 1825 (click on the image for more information).

But the art of Genre — the painting of character and incident — is first clearly shaped and recognised in the seventeenth century in Holland. Afterwards, much modified, varied, extended even in its aim less purely naturalistic — it counts for its own nearly all that is good or evil in French design for almost eighty years; and during that time some other modification of it, due to his own peculiar genius, gives [11/12] us in England the work of Hogarth. Wilkie, the elder Leslie — Mulready perhaps — close its history, so far as the criticism of our day is able fairly to judge it. And the interest of its history does not lie in the study of the development of one given system the concern of the pedant, wherever it may be found, — but in the study of the minds of many men. How did these various men look at life and touch it? What struck them? What did they express?

* [Henry] Fielding touches this matter, in his preface to Joseph Andrews, "The Monstrous," he urges, "is much easier to paint than describe, and the Ridiculous to describe than paint."

Related Material

Source of Extract

Wedmore, Frederick. The Masters of Genre Painting; being an introductory handbook to the study of genre painting. London: C. Kegan, Paul & Co., 1880. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 1 March 2017.

[Illustration source]. Scott, William Bell. The Little Masters: Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Sebald Beham, Barthel Beham, Heinrich Aldegrever, Georg Pencz, Jacob Binck, Hars Brosamer. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1880. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harold B. Lee Library,Brigham Young University. Web. 1 March 2017.

Created 1 March 2017