Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze.
Credit: This painting is part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Still Life, portrait, and landscape are all categories, or genres, of painting which your students have probably seen examples of on their trips to the museum or when looking through an art book. But how much do they know about the genre of genre painting? What genre is Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s image of George Washington Crossing the Delaware from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
This lesson plan will help students to understand and differentiate the various genres in the visual arts, particularly in Western painting. Students will learn to identify major genres, and will learn to discriminate between a painting’s subject and its genre.
What are genres in the visual arts?
The word Genre comes from the French word for “type” or “kind,” and has been traditionally used in the arts to differentiate the “kind” of work that is being produced. It is often used in discussing literature (such as “westerns,” “romances,” or “mysteries”), as well as film (“drama,” “thriller,” or “action”). In the visual arts the term refers to the “type” of image, or what category of subjects is being depicted. When France’s Academy of Art was at its zenith the genres of painting were ordered hierarchically, with history painting seen as the most important—'and thus most respected—of the genres and still life painting being the least important. Definitions for each of these terms are available through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library:
Note: Genre in this lesson plan will be referring to two concepts. The broader concept is the use of the word “genre” to refer to the delineation of categories or types of painting. “Genre” is also the name of one genre of painting—paintings which depict daily life. You may wish to explain the distinctions between these two uses of the term to students in your introduction.
Genres were one of the most important ways of categorizing European and American paintings from the 16th through the 20th centuries. With the rise of modernism the separation of these categories has grown less distinct, and the hierarchy is no longer in place. While modern and contemporary artists continue to produce allegories, and paintings with religious and historical themes, these images are today rarely called “history paintings.” These categories play a significant role in the history of art in Europe and America, and understanding and recognizing the differences between the various genres is an important part of studying the history of the visual arts in these areas.
Beginning students often confuse a painting’s genre with its subject or with its style or movement. This lesson plan will include a brief activity to help students delineate a painting’s genre from its subject. You may also wish to consult or introduce the material on subject and movement in the visual arts available from the EDSITEment lesson plans What’s in a Picture? An Introduction to the Subject in the Visual Arts and Impressions and Expressions: Investigating Movement in the Visual Arts. These lessons can be taught together as a curriculum unit or may be introduced separately.
The following activities will provide suggestions for introducing students to each of the major painting genres. If you have the time you may choose to complete all of these activities with your students, or you may select the ones that are most pertinent to your curriculum or on the genres which your students could benefit from further information or explanation. Students will often move more quickly through some of the genres—such as still life or landscape—than others, and you may not find further discussion on these genres necessary. Each of these activities does provide a suggestion for moving students’ investigation beyond simple recognition. For example, the activity introducing still life painting contains a suggestion for viewing the underlying meaning that is sometimes present—if often overlooked—in works of this genre, such as the messages contained in vanitas still life paintings of the 17th century.
Note: Genre is a term that are most often used in reference to European and American art, and as a result this lesson will concentrate on art from these areas.
In their early encounters with studying the visual arts, many students find it difficult to differentiate between subject and genre. You may wish to precede this lesson with the EDSITEment lesson plan What’s in a Picture? An Introduction to Subject in the Visual Arts so that students will have gained a background in the topic of the subject in the visual arts before embarking on this lesson. For students who are just beginning to investigate the visual arts, this brief activity should help to contrast the concept of genre with that of the subject.
Like genre painting, history painting is a category that is not often used to describe contemporary art works. In the past—and particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries—history painting was considered to be the loftiest of the genres. Canvases were often vast and the scope of the images epic. History paintings are not exclusively about “history,” but include a range of images and topics from the religious to the allegorical to the mythological and beyond.
Genre painting is today not a category often used to describe contemporary works of art, even when they fit the parameters of this category. In 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Europe is was a very popular genre in which painters worked, and some of the most well known painters of these centuries excelled in this field.
Often the line between these two genres is very thin or even non-existent. Many paintings contain aspects of both genre painting and portrait painting. Ask students to view the following image by the Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp. Is this a portrait? Is this a genre painting? Is it both? Ask students to explain their answers.
Most students will already be quite familiar with portraits—and have probably had a photographic portrait taken of them at some point! But what distinguishes a portrait from any image of a person? Are there different kinds of portraits?
As with still life painting, the genre of landscape painting covers a large and diverse range of works. While the words “landscape painting” bring to many minds images of the English landscape painter, John Constable’s calm countryside, the category also includes paintings of towns, farms, and cities.
Still life is for many students the most easily identifiable category of painting. When we think of still life painting we often image fruits and flowers arranged on a table draped with a cloth. This is an accurate description of many still life paintings, though in this activity students will be introduced to one of the types of still life painting which carries deeper meaning than the beauty of a polished apple or a jar of primroses.
Students have probably encountered the concept of genre—even if they don’t realize they have—in movies, books and even television shows. This activity will introduce students who are not yet familiar with the term to the idea of genre in general, and in the visual arts in particular.
3-5 class periods