Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Genre in the Visual Arts: Portraits, Pears, and Perfect Landscapes

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Washington Crossing the  Delaware by Emanuel Leutze.

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.

Guiding Questions

What are genres in the visual arts?

Learning Objectives

  • Define genre in the visual arts, particularly in Western painting
  • Recognize and explain the differences between subject and genre
  • Identify the genre of a variety of works of art

Preparation Instructions

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Subject or Genre?

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.

  • If the subject is what the painting is about, then how is the painting’s genre different? Show students Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 painting Irises. Ask them to identify the genre of the painting. Students should identify the painting as a still life. Next ask them to identify the subject of the painting: irises.
  • Ask students to identify the subject and genre of three paintings. For example you might the following images:
  • Now that they have identified the genres that each of these works falls under, what are the subjects of these works? Ask students to identify the subjects. Once they have completed this exercise ask them to write a brief explanation of the difference between subject and genre.
Activity 2. Is History Painting Always about History?

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.

  • At the beginning of the lesson students were introduced to historical painting with Delacroix’s rendering of Christopher Columbus and his Son at La Rabida. This image depicts Columbus at the height of his frustration during his pursuit of financial support for his exploration. He is penniless and has taken shelter in the monastery of Rabida, however, he will soon triumph over his obstacles as word from Queen Isabella informing him of her decision to fund his expedition is about to reach him. This is not a rendering of an historical scene that was witnessed by Delacroix, but is the way in which he imagines the scene to have occurred. What does this tell us about the definition of “history” in the title of this genre?

  • Have students view the following paintings. As they look at each painting ask students: is this image a history painting? Why or why not?
  • The subject matter of history painting encompasses an enormous range of topics and subjects, including mythological scenes; historical events; religious subjects; and even allegories. How can allegories be understood as part of a genre called “history painting”? Keeping the same small groups of three or four from the last activity have each group work together to write a definition for history painting that will encompass the most important elements of the genre. Students might begin by trying to compile a list of qualities that are present in each of the four history paintings presented in this lesson. What are the most essential elements which link these pieces together despite the very different subjects and topics covered by these images? Definitions should include the idea that history paintings are not strictly eyewitness accounts of historical events, but are artistic recreations of events that are thought to have taken place in the past. Even when the event is something that has occurred during the lifetime of the painter—and which he or she may even have witnessed—these paintings are not an attempt to report the event, but are designed to convey the lofty meaning of the event. Because history paintings are more concerned with themes and meaning than with reportage it is possible to place allegory paintings and mythology paintings into this category. It is also important for students to note that history paintings typically include idealized depictions of their characters—a quality which distinguishes history paintings of single figures from portraits.
Activity 3. What kind of Genre is a Genre painting?

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.

  • At the beginning of this lesson students viewed the painting A Maid Asleep by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer is one of the best known painters of his time, particularly for his genre paintings. His paintings are few in number—totaling only about 35 known works—but are rich in detail. Many of his paintings capture the image of a single person, often a woman, in a domestic setting. How are these images different from simple portraits?
  • Show students the following images. As they look at each painting ask students: is this image a genre painting? Why or why not?
  • While the subject matter of each of these paintings is very different all three are genre paintings. Keeping the same small groups of three or four from the last activity have each group work together to write a definition for genre painting that will encompass the most important elements of the genre. This category of works encompasses numerous subjects, from bawdy 17th century Dutch taverns to the coal mines of Newcastle. What are the most essential elements which link these pieces together despite the very different times, places and styles? Definitions should include the idea that genre paintings focus on depicting “daily life.”
  • Portraits are a depiction of an actual person who is sometimes shown in the midst on the day’s activities. Genre paintings show people—sometimes actual, observed people—going about the tasks, chores and entertainments of daily life. How can we delineate between when an image is a portrait and when it is a genre painting?

    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.

Activity 4. A Lovely Likeness: Portraits

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?

  • The portrait at the beginning of this lesson depicts Andrew Jackson, whose face is most likely already familiar to most students from their history books and from the $20 bill. But do all portraits depict famous people? What makes a portrait a portrait?
  • Have students view the following paintings. As they look at each painting ask students: is this image a portrait painting? Why or why not?
  • Do all portraits depict famous people? One of the portraits in this group depicts Maude Adams, who was a famous actress at the time this image was painted. Ask students to discuss whether or not it is necessary for the sitter for a portrait to be famous. Ask them to explain their answers.
  • Are all portraits the same, or are there different kinds of portraits? Ask students to try to identify a few different types of portraits. Their list might include official portraits (such as portraits of heads of state) such as the image of Jackson; self-portraits such as the van Gogh image in this group; family portraits such as the image of Madame Monet and her son included here; or remembrance portraits (popular in the time before photography when families would often commission portraits of loved ones who passed away).
  • One of the paintings in this group is not a portrait, but has been included in this group as a way of helping students recognize the boundaries and necessary components of portrait painting. Keeping the same small groups of three or four from the last activity have each group work together to write a definition for portrait painting that will encompass the most important elements of the genre. This should include the idea that a portrait is something that captures the likeness of a person who has been viewed by the artist. Can an image of a person never viewed by the painter be a portrait? Students should be able to identify Bastien-Lepage’s painting entitled Joan of Arc as the image that is not a portrait. Ask students to identify to which genre this image belongs. You may wish to reintroduce this image with the history painting activity.
Activity 5. Getting the Lay of the Land: Landscapes

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.

  • Students began this lesson by viewing one of George Inness’ landscape paintings of the American landscape. Inness spent many years living in northern New Jersey, painting the rolling hills and lush vegetation of the area. Much of the region that was Inness’ home is now part of the urban and suburban areas which surround New York City in the state that is today the most densely populated in the country. If Inness was still alive and painted a picture of the same spot that is seen in Autumn Oaks as it looks today—with apartment buildings, highways and billboards—would it still be a landscape? Why or why not?
  • Next, have students view the following paintings. As they look at each painting ask students to contemplate whether or not the image is a landscape painting. They should explain their answers for each painting.
  • While the subject matter of each of these paintings is very different all three are landscape paintings. Keeping the same small groups of three or four from the last activity have each group work together to write a definition for landscape painting that will encompass the most important elements of the genre. Definitions should note that “landscape” is not restricted to images of the natural world, but also includes man-made landscapes, from the cultivated and managed land pictured in images of farms to the cityscapes that capture the light and movement of the world’s metropolises. For example, Braque’s work belongs to a subcategory of landscape painting—the seascape—while Sloane’s work is an example of another subcategory of landscape painting—the cityscape.
Activity 6. More than Fruit and Flowers: Still Life

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 already viewed a still life painting by the French painter Paul Cezanne. What are the key components of this painting that make it an example of the still life genre?
  • Have students view the following paintings. As they look at each painting ask students: is this image a still life painting? Why or why not?
  • While the subject matter of each of these paintings is very different all three are still life paintings. Divide the class into small groups of three or four. Have each group work together to write a definition for still life painting that will encompass the most important elements of the genre. Definitions should include the observation not only that the subject matter is made up of inanimate objects (fruit, flowers, musical instruments, pots, bottles, seashells), but that the painter has arranged the objects in a particular way before painting them.
  • If you have time you may wish to introduce the idea that while still life painting is often thought to be without a deeper or underlying meaning beyond the aesthetics of the composition and color of the objects contained in the painting, this is not always the case. One way of introducing this concept is to show the class a vanitas painting. The word vanitas comes from the Latin word for vanity and the paintings were meant to remind viewers that all of life is fleeting: to forget the larger powers at work in the universe was the ultimate vanity. Vanitas paintings were particularly popular among Dutch and Flemish painters in the 17th century, and are distinguished by the choice of objects that made up their subject. Vanitas still life paintings often featured human or animal skulls, as well as objects whose life spans were short, such as flowers. You may wish to show the class the following example of a vanitas painting:
Activity 7. Genres in General

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.

  • Write a list of genres on the board: mystery, drama, comedy, romance, etc. Divide students into groups of four and ask each group to work together to compile a list of what is different about the items on the list and what all of these things have in common. Once they have compiled their list explain that each of the items written on the board is the name of a genre in the arts—such as literature or film. Students should then use their list of common qualities to work on writing a definition for the term genre. The definitions that students compile should include the idea that genre is a category of subject matter in creative works.
  • Explain to students that works in the visual arts are often divided into different genres. This has been particularly true of European and American painting until very recently. Ask students if they can think of any painting genres and have them compile their list on the board. They can compare the list that the class has compiled with the examples they will be seeing, discovering which of the categories on their list appear and which do not.
  • Next, present images of paintings to the class which exemplify some of the major genres in Western painting. Each of these images is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resources The Metropolitan Museum of Art or The National Gallery. You may wish to have students read the definitions for each of these genres that are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, or you may wish to give a brief explanation of the genres as you show the examples to the class. As students view these examples ask them to write down qualities or components of each genre that will help them identify additional examples of the genre in the future.
  • Divide students into small groups of three or four. Using the notes they have taken while viewing each example of a genre, students should work together to compile a list of identifying features for each genre. As the class learns more about each genre students should add relevant information to their lists of defining features.

Assessment

  • In addition to the written definitions that students will have compiled over the course of this lesson, you may also wish to have students try out their understanding of the painting genres that have been introduced in this lesson. This can be achieved by showing a series of paintings to the class and asking students to identify the genre of each work. Students should fill in the chart available in .pdf format, which is also available as an online exercise, placing each work under the proper genre and giving an explanation of why they believe this painting fits into this genre. You may wish to choose the images to show to the class from the large collections available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resources The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The National Gallery, or you may wish to use the following list of paintings with links to the images from these web sites. This list of works is not evenly divided between all of the genres, as some (such as landscape and still life) are easier to recognize than others (such as history and genre). The last two overlap between the genre and portrait genres, and may prove challenging for students to identify. Ask them to explain their answers in detail. You may wish to use this rubric PDF as a guide.
  • Ask students to choose two paintings from this list which represent two distinct genres. Have students compose short essays analyzing the ways in which each of the two images contain the criteria of their genre.

Extending The Lesson

  • Depending on time, you may wish to have students complete a deeper analysis of the differences between some of the genres by having them investigate a string of images. You can begin this process by reintroducing Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 painting Joan of Arc, which should already be familiar should from the earlier exercise on portrait painting. In the previous exercise students were asked to recognize that this painting does not belong to the portrait painting genre. Once they have completed the activity on history painting they should recognize that this painting contains the characteristics of this genre. Students should begin this exercise by explaining how this painting meets the criteria of history painting.
  • Next, ask students to view Alphonse Mucha’s Maude Adams as Joan of Arc, which should also be familiar from the earlier portrait painting exercise. How is this painting different from Bastien-Lepage’s painting of Joan of Arc? What makes this a portrait, while the other painting is a history painting? Students should focus on the fact that Mucha is painting a portrait of Maude Adams, a stage actress of note during his era, rather than a portrait of Joan of Arc.
  • Finally, have students view this photograph by the American artist Cindy Sherman entitled Still from an Untitled Film. Ms. Sherman is a photographer who gained notoriety early in her career for her images—such as this one—of herself dressed in period costume and photographed in a “cinematic” style (meaning that the photographs imitate the style of film). Each of these images is designed to convey to the audience the feeling of a film still, and to trigger a false memory in which the viewer may begin to wonder what film the image is taken from, or is being imitated. Each of these images does not actually have a film antecedent—which is one of the reasons that they are said to be from an “untitled film”—but it is the cinematic style that is being imitated or referenced. Ask students to contemplate whether or not this is a portrait. Can a photograph of one’s self playing the role of an actress playing a role in a film that doesn’t exist be a self-portrait? You may wish to direct students to revisit the arguments they have already made for why the portrait of Maude Adams playing the role of Joan of Arc is a portrait of the actress.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)