Some views on genre painting

William Makepeace Thackeray:

The heroic, and peace be with it! has been deposed; and our artists, in its place, cultivate the pathetic and the familiar.... The younger painters are content to exercise their talents on subjects far less exalted: a gentle sentiment, an agreeable, quiet incident, a tea-table tragedy or a bread-and-butter idyll, suffices for the most part their gentle powers. Nor surely ought one to quarrel at all with this prevalent mode. It is at least natural, which the heroic was not. Bread and butter can be digested by every man; whereas Prometheus on his rock, or Orestes in his strait-waistcoat, or Hector dragged behind Achilles' car, or "Britannia, guarded by Religion and Neptune, welcoming General Tomkins in the Temple of Glory" — the ancient heroic, allegorical subjects — can be supposed deeply to interest very few of the inhabitants of this city or kingdom. We have wisely given up pretending that we were interested in such, and confess a partiality for more simple and homely themes. [72-73]

Paul Crowther:

Put in the broadest terms, genre is the painting of social and material presence. Everyday events and activities are represented and improved upon — not through idealization but through being made vivid. There are, of course, many works of genre that are merely slight and decorative. However, genre works of a more serious kind (even light-hearted ones) tend to tell stories and/or represent states of affairs with visual fullness — in terms of volume, detail and texture, and tonal modelling. They emphasize the particularities of the scene represented, rather than the generalized beauty of the Ideal, or the prettiness and frivolity celebrated by eighteenth-century rococco. This means that they are more "realistic" or "naturalistic," comparatively speaking, than other pictorial idioms.

Jeremy Maas:

...many thousands of Victorian painters who practised genre painting ... are now forgotten.... Never before had an age been so well documented. [105]

Examples of Victorian painters whose work is often seen to fall into this category

Left to right: (a) Richard Redgrave's The Outcast, 1851 (b) Thomas Faed's From Hand to Mouth, 1879. (c) George Dunlop Leslie's Sun and Moon Flowers, 1889. [Click on these pictures to enlarge them, and for more information.]

This broad and overlapping category includes some celebrated as well as thousands of lesser known Victorian painters, partly because even the most important artists, such as John Millais, also needed to produce paintings with popular appeal, and partly because these big names (from Hogarth onwards) validated the efforts of many other aspiring artists all over the country. While their interest was focused, like that of earlier Dutch and Flemish artists, on homely everyday domestic scenes, there was another dimension too. As Jeremy Maas says: "Poverty, prostitution, illicit love, illness, death, bereavement and sudden destitution" were favourite subjects throughout the period, the appeal of such subjects linking to "the humanitarian idealism of the Victorians" (117, 121).

Maas sees genre painting as having been "shored up," with the passage of time, by the success of William Frith, and of the well-known Victorian illustrators like Arthur Boyd Houghton who also produced genre paintings both in oils and watercolours. These introduced "the new element of social realism in the 'seventies," Maas explains (232). The crossover from periodical- and book-illustration, which was such an important art form then, is of much interest here. Yet another factor, as suggested by Lionel Lambourne, was the theatre, including dramatic tableaux of historical events which could be put on at home, and which presented opportunities for the new photography enthusiasts.

Cosy indoor scenes, incidents captured at the crucial moment, costume pictures, and scenes depicting domestic pets, can all be seen as types of Genre painting. However, panoramic crowd scenes like Frith's larger canvases, narrative paintings or sets of paintings with strong story-lines such as Augustus Egg's Past and Present (despite the example of Hogarth), and fairy paintings, are usually discussed as specific genres of their own.

Later in the period, more life was injected into the domestic type of genre painting by the Cranbrook colony of artists in Kent, with which Augustus Mulready and John Callcott Horsley were associated; and also the St John's Wood clique, to which Philip Calderon and William Frederick Yeames belonged. But it was now being challenged by Classicism, and at length Aestheticism in particular proved too much for it. George Moore complained in 1886 that "the art of to-day is mildly realistic; not the great realism of idea, but the puny reality of materialism; not the deep poetry of a Pieter de Hooch, but the meanness of a Frith; not the winged realism of Balzac, but the degrading naturalism of a coloured photograph" (145). Change had become inevitable. — Jacqueline Banerjee

Some Victorian Painters apt to be described as "genre painters":

Related Material


Bills, Mark, and Vivien Knight, eds. William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age. New Haven & London: Yale Univ. Press, 2006.

Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. [Entire catalogue; see Style in the Victorian Artworld.]

Hadfield, John. Every Picture Tells a A Story: IMages of Victorian Life. London: The Herbert Press, 1985.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. Ed. with revised bibliography. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1978.

Moore, George. Confessions of a Young Man (1886). Edited and annotated by Moore in 1914 and 1916. London: Heinemann, 1917. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 1 March 2017.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. "Letters on the Fine Arts, III: The Royal Academy." In Sultan Stork and Other Stories and Sketches. London: George Redway, 1887. 72-76. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 1 March 2017.

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.

Created 1 March 2017