5 Genres of Painting Styles


A close up of a knife

The term genre painting refers to paintings which depict scenes of everyday life. Genre painting developed particularly in Holland in the seventeenth century. The most typical subjects were scenes of peasant life or drinking in taverns, and tended to be small in scale. In the seventeenth century five types – or ‘genres’ – of painting were established, these were: history painting; portrait painting; landscape painting; genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and still life. These genres were seen by the art establishment as having varying levels of importance, with history painting (the painting of scenes from history, the bible or literature) as the most important genre, and still life (paintings of still objects) as the least important.

History Painting

A close up of a bottle on a table

The term history painting was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history and mythology, and the Bible – in the eighteenth century it was also used to refer to more recent historical subjects.

The term ‘history painting’ was introduced by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century. It was seen as the most important type (or ‘genre’), of painting above portraiture, the depiction of scenes from daily life (called genre painting), landscape and still life painting. (See the glossary page for genres to find out more).

Portrait Painting

A group of items on a table

A portrait is a representation of a particular person. A self-portrait is  a portrait of the artist by the artist. Portraiture is a very old art form going back at least to ancient Egypt, where it flourished from about 5,000 years ago. Before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone.

Landscape Painting

Landscape is one of the principal types or genres of subject in Western art. The appreciation of nature for its own sake, and its choice as a specific subject for art, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the seventeenth century landscape was confined to the background of portraits or paintings dealing principally with religious, mythological or historical subjects.

Today, landscape continues to be a major theme in art with many artists using documentary techniques such as video, photography and classification processes to explore the ways we relate to the places we live in and to record the impact we have on the land and our environment.

Genre Painting

These are paintings depicting scenes of everyday life. Genre art contrasts with that of landscape, portraiture, still life, religious themes, historic events, or any kind of traditionally idealized subject matter.

Still Life

One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead. Still life includes all kinds of man-made or natural objects, cut flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish, game, wine and so on. Still life can be a celebration of material pleasures such as food and wine, or often a warning of the ephemerality of these pleasures and of the brevity of human life.

These are the five main genres of painting styles.

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