Genre painting broadly describes an art style that illustrates scenes of everyday life, both high and low.
Genre painting emerged throughout Holland in the 17th century, with exponents including Vermeer, and soon expanded throughout Northern Europe, rivalling more classical, biblical, or historical subjects. Genre painting became enormously popular in the Victorian age following the success of artists such as Sir David Wilkie whose style was more anecdotal.
The most typical subjects of genre painting of the 17th-19th centuries were scenes of peasant life, including labour, taverns, markets, courtship, and domestic interiors. At the founding of the French Academy in 1648, the hierarchy of subjects was already firmly entrenched. Mirrored in their placement on the gallery walls, still life ranked the lowest, with historical subjects at the top. In the middle rung was what we now term genre painting.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists elevated their scenes of everyday life, both through aggrandising their scale and idealising their subject matter. This was most popular for the artists of the later part of the 19th century. Francesco Beda (1840-1900) was one such artist, whose works are unashamedly grandiose, set in palatial interiors with aristocratic characters typically engaged in high society pastimes such as board games. Another key genre painter of the later 19th century was the Italian, Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920). In contrast to Beda, Chierici focused on more humble subjects although often with a sentimental or witty undertone.
Despite beginning as a landscape painter, Chierici earned an international reputation for his paintings of humble farming lifestyles executed with exquisite detail. The sincerity in his genre paintings earned him the title ‘poet of the family’, as it was not just the objects and settings of his paintings that were of importance to him but also the interactions between his characters and the overall narrative that they translated. The Happy Family 1870 dates from the artist’s ‘descriptive period’, where the poor are represented as a happy community. The fireplace is often central and represents the source of their comfort, whilst also enabling Chierici to flex his brush in the balance of light and shadow. Great thought is given to the placement of every object in the scene, as well as the tattered clothing and smiling expressions of the figures with a father-figure noticeably absent.
By the end of the 19th century, artists began to pivot to scenes of the new modern life around them in fast-growing metropolises such as London and Paris. The simple and sentimental genre scenes of the Victorian era were replaced by a new style of genre painting focusing on busy street and café scenes. Painters such as Gaetano Chierici and Luigi Scaffai represent, therefore, a moment in time where the ‘simple’ life reigned supreme amongst artistic circles.
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OLIVIA FULLER / Head of Art
Banner Image (detail): Gaetano Chierici (Italian, 1838-1920) The Happy Family 1870, oil on canvas, signed and dated mid right: Gaetano Chierici fecit / 1870, 80.5 x 107cm | $90,000-120,000