Italian Genre Painting

By Elizabeth Stewart   |   May 21, 2024
The Italian genre painting of a man, his burro, and a peasant girl with her basket

BH has an Italian watercolor genre painting which features classic genre style figuration: a buxom peasant girl (wearing a very loose blouse) listens to a man who leads a burro; she has dropped her basket on the stones of a village street. The corridor of stone buildings shows us an onlooker, a young man in blue. The work is signed illegibly. It is an event, but what is happening? Is the man with the burro propositioning the girl?

What we call a genre painting is accurately a STYLE of painting (a genre of painting) with distinctive realistic features, known for visual narratives of real people in real settings carrying out real lives, whether those lives be high born, or low born. Two elements apply: for the high-born figures portrayed, this style requires historical architectural setting and clothing, for the low-born folks painted, this style requires images of a simpler, more earthy way of life, and hearkens back to a more rural lifestyle. No wonder, as by the time this style became popular throughout Europe, the world had experienced the Industrial Revolution, and both the aristocratic palace nobles, and the lowly peasant on the idyllic farms, were a thing of the past as modernism began to grow. Both styles, the high and the low, show people dressed as if for a theatrical performance, and undertaking common activities for their ‘class’; for example, the noble aristocrat engaged in cards with other noble cardsharps. The lowly were shown eating, smoking, drinking, and as we see in BH’s image, flirting. 

Usually there is a suggestion of both sentimentality and sexuality in these genre images, not surprising for the late 19th c. Victorian’s suppression of sexuality.

Although the style reached its zenith in the late 19th c., it actually began in Italy in the 17th c. with greats like Caravaggio. Artists in Italy had two avenues to pursue after such a genius; religious art became weighty and seriously painted for profound impact in dramatic deep colors, or art became scenes of everyday life “narrated” by realistic figures in understandable settings, rendered in freer brushstrokes, and often sentimentalized, using a ‘sweeter,’ softer toned palette.

The aristocratic genre paintings of the late 19th c. can show lavish historical interiors, silk clothing, powered wigs, leisurely pursuits, lots of decolletage, painted in exuberant “candy box” colors. On the other hand, images of humble peasants and country folks were painted in lifelike realism, and they were usually clothed in distinctive regional rural garb. Fast becoming obsolete, certain types of labor were depicted, such as net-fishers, portly monks making wine, busty milkmaids, craggy old men smoking huge pipes, children feeding the farm animals. These works are set in farmhouses, on village streets, in crofter’s cottages, and painted in great detail as to settings and as to clothing. They usually had something happening of a humorous nature, like the scantly clothed young female as she is chased by a flock of geese. Children, either children of great wealth, or beggar children, were romanticized and were often subjects of genre paintings, and handsome young lovers as they courted in the Italian village or upon the boats of Lake Como were favored. Simple village dramas were played out in these paintings, too.

The genre paintings are not in favor today because of their realism and sentimentality, and because they idolize non-modernity. In that era when they were extremely popular, collectors were the post-Industrial Revolution urbanites, the wealthy elites, and the noveau riche, in other words, those that needed a work of art to tell them a story, not the “old money” who HAD paintings, but the “new money” that had little art background. The collectors of genre work admired the narrative behind the image; each painting told a story.

Although the style began in Italy, by the 19th c. the popularity of realistic narrative paintings of “real” life spread to France, Holland, America, England, and Germany. Each aforementioned country had their own special subjects: for example, the genre paintings of England and Germany often included a dog or a horse. French genre paintings often show us country priests in their robes, or beautifully dressed 18th c. women and men in palace interiors; in Holland we see bonneted middle-class women in their perfectly neat kitchens. In the U.S., genre painters loved working-class children, the Huck Finn archetype, barefooted tough boys who often smoked cigarettes. The American collector also bought plenty of morality-style images, for example, the sad, disappointed former wayward “lady of the evening.” BH’s genre painting is worth $250.


You might also be interested in...