Painting Genres
Categories, Types of Picture, Hierarchy of Paintings.

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Detail showing the Virgin Mary, from
The Descent From the Cross (1440),
one of the great religious paintings
by Roger Van der Weyden of the
15th century Flemish School.

The 5 Painting Genres
Traditional Classification of Paintings


What are genres?
Why were paintings ranked?
Famous paintings in each category
Genre Painting
Still Life

Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
(1514-15) Louvre, Paris. One of
the greatest portrait paintings by
the High Renaissance genius Raphael.

What are Genres?

Paintings are traditionally divided into five categories or 'genres'. The establishment of these genres and their relative status in relation to one other, stems from the philosophy of arts promoted by the great European Academies of Fine Art, like the Royal Academy in London, and the influential French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts).

The five categories of fine art painting, listed in order of their official ranking or importance, are as follows:

1. History Painting
Religious, historical or allegorical work, with a moral message.
2. Portrait Art
Includes individual, group or self-portraits.
3. Genre Painting
Scenes of everyday life.
4. Landscape Painting
Paintings whose principal content is a scenic view.
5. Still Life Painting
An arrangement of domestic objects or everyday items.

Young Woman with a Water Jug by Jan Vermeer
Young Woman with a Water Jug
(1662) Metropolitan Museum, NY.
By Jan Vermeer. One of the
greatest genre paintings of
the Dutch Golden Age.


Lower Norwood under Snow (1870) National Gallery, London.
Camille Pissarro. One of the famous
Impressionist landscape paintings of
the 19th century French School.


Bouquet of Flowers (1884)
By Ivan Kramskoy.
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
One of the great still-lifes of
19th century Russian painting.

Why Were Paintings Ranked?

This 'hierarchy of genres' was adopted as the main agenda for "academic art" because it reflected Italian Renaissance values about what was the 'best' or 'noblest' type of art. In Italy, where a great deal of art was commissioned by the Church for public display inside churches, large-scale paintings with a moral or uplifting message were considered the highest form of art. Whereas landscape and still lifes typically contained no humans and thus no moral message.

This Renaissance ranking system, which formed the basis of the official "academic art" taught in European and later American academies of fine art, was not seriously challenged until the 19th century, despite the fact that the Old Masters of Northern Europe (that is, those living in Flanders, Holland, Germany, Britain and Scandinavia) developed quite different painting traditions and methods from those in Italy and Spain. For example, from 1520 onwards, Northern Europe rejected Rome and adopted the Protestant faith instead. And since Protestant religious leaders totally rejected the idea of decorating their churches with expensive works of art, Northern artists were forced to turn to middle-class patrons, who wanted small scale paintings - portraits and still lifes, as well as genre paintings - to hang in their homes.

This switch was further encouraged by the fact that the North European climate, being damper, was less suitable for fresco painting and more suitable for oil painting, which was the ideal medium for the detailed Dutch Realism style of art.

The main reason why the ranking system became so unpopular among artists during the 19th century, was because of the way the system was applied. Academies (notably the French Academy) were conservative institutions who followed rigid, unchanging teaching practices, and insisted that all artists follow a detailed set of conventions (relating to theme, composition, colours, finish etc.) when creating a work of art. Penalties for non-conformers included exclusion from the Academy's annual "Salon", a fate which made it impossible to pursue a career as an artist. Furthermore, this unyielding approach to aesthetics made no concessions to new movements, such as Romanticism or Realism, or to developing genres such as landscape and genre painting. By the mid-19th century, debate raged between advocates of traditionalist academic art and their more open-minded critics.

Famous Paintings in Each Category

History Painting

Traditionally the most-respected of all the genres, "history painting" is not limited to pictures depicting 'historical scenes'. The term derives from the Italian word "istoria", meaning narrative (story), and refers to paintings showing the exemplary deeds and struggles of moral figures. It includes Christian imagery involving Biblical figures, as well as mythological painting involving mythical or pagan divinities, and real-life historical figures. History paintings - traditionally large-scale public works - aim to elevate the morals of the community.


Famous History Paintings

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319)

Stroganoff Madonna and Child (1300)
Tempera and gold on wood, Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Maesta Altarpiece (1308-1311)
Tempera and gold on wood, Siena Cathedral Museum.

Giotto (1267-1337)

Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10)
Fresco painting, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
- The Betrayal of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (1305)
- Lamentation of Christ (1305)

Robert Campin (c.1378-1444)

Seilern Triptych (1410)
Oils/gold leaf on panel, Courtauld Institute, London.
Merode Altarpiece (c.1425)
Oil on panel, Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.

Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416)

Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413)
Gouache on vellum, Musee Conde, Chantilly.

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32)
Oil on wood, St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

Battle of San Romano (1438-55) (HISTORICAL)
Tempera on panel, National Gallery London; Uffizi Florence; Louvre Paris.

Tommaso Masaccio (1401-28)

Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-8)
Fresco painting, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
Holy Trinity (1428)
Fresco painting, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Piero Della Francesca (1415-92)

Flagellation of Christ (1450-60)
Tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80)
Tempera on panel, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Hans Memling (c.1433-94)

Last Judgment Triptych (1471)
Oil on panel, Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.
Donne Triptych (1480)
Oil on panel, National Gallery, London.

Hugo Van Der Goes (1440-1482)

Portinari Altarpiece (1479)
Oil on wood, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

La Primavera (1483) (ALLEGORICAL painting)
Tempera on poplar panel, Uffizi, Florence.
Birth of Venus (1486) (ALLEGORICAL painting)
Tempera on canvas, Uffizi, Florence.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Virgin of the Rocks (1483-5)
Oil on panel, Louvre, Paris.
The Last Supper (1495–98) (Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena)
Mixed media/oil and tempera, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528)

The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515)
Oil on wood panel, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Genesis Fresco (1508-12)
Fresco painting, Ceiling of Sistine Chapel, Rome.
Creation of Adam (1511-12)
Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Rome.
Last Judgment Fresco (1536-41)
Fresco painting, Altar Wall of Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Raphael (1483-1520)

School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) (1509-11) (HISTORICAL)
Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
Sistine Madonna (1513-14)
Oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
Transfiguration (1518-20)
Oil on panel, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican.

Titian (1488-1576)

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18)
Oil/panel, Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Oil on oak panel, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)
Oil/panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Supper at Emmaus (1601-2)
Oil and tempera on canvas, National Gallery, London.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) (MYTHOLOGICAL)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654)
Louvre, Paris.
The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) (HISTORICAL)
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

The Oath of the Horatii (1785)
Louvre Museum, Paris.
Death of Marat (1793)
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.

NOTE: See also: Best History Painters (1400-present).



Portrait art includes pictures of people, deities or mythological figures in human form. The genre includes group-portraits as well as those of individuals. A portrait of an individual may be face-only, or head and shoulders, or full-body. Academic portraiture is executed according to certain conventions, concerning dress, the position of hands and other details. This genre was practised by artists of almost all movements, typically in a true-to-life or 'realist style. Ninteenth century portraits also mirrored the realist style of the day, while later we see a number of fine Impressionist portraits, along with even more colourful Expressionist portraits, including the portraits painted by Picasso.

Famous Examples of Portraiture:

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

Man in a Red Turban (1433)
Oil on wood, National Gallery, London.
Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
Oil on wood, National Gallery, London.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Lady with an Ermine (1490)
Oil on panel, Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.
Mona Lisa (1503-06)
Oil on wood, Louvre, Paris.

Raphael (1483-1520)

Pope Leo X with Cardinals (1518)
Oil on panel, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Titian (1488-1576)

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546)
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Rembrandt (1606-69)

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Night Watch (1642)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Portrait of Jan Six (1654)
Private Collection, Amsterdam.
Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662)
Oil on canvas Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Head of a Girl with a Turban) (1665)
Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666-1667)
Oil/panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

NOTE: See also: Best Portrait Artists (1400-present).

NOTE: Painters noted for their "self portraits" include: the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the Dutch genius Rembrandt (1606-69), the tragic 19th century expressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), the short-lived neurotic Austrian prodigy Egon Schiele (1890-1918), the moody German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and the contemporary Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-92).

Genre Painting

"Genre painting" or "genre-scenes" refers to pictures that portray ordinary scenes of everyday life. Subjects include domestic settings, interiors, celebrations, tavern scenes, markets and other street situations. Whatever the precise content, the scene is typically portrayed in a non-idealized way, and characters are not endowed with any heroic or dramatic attributes. The foremost example of this category of art was the school of Dutch Realist Genre Painting of the 17th century.

Famous Genre-Pictures:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Oil on oak panel, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Oil on oak panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Peasant Wedding Feast (1568)
Oil on oak panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

The Little Street (c.1657-58)
Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1658)
Frick Collection, New York.
The Milkmaid (c.1658-1660)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Woman Holding a Balance (1662-3)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1663)
Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (c.1666-73)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The Lacemaker (c.1669-1670)
Louvre, Paris.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)
Louvre, Paris; and Charlottenburg, Berlin.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75)

The Angelus (1859)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Man with a Hoe (1862)
J.Paul Getty Museum, LA.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Hotel Room (1931)
Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, Lugano.
Nighthawks (1942)
Art Institute of Chicago.

NOTE: See also: Best Genre Painters (1600-present).


The term "landscape painting" comes from the Dutch word 'landschap', meaning 'a patch of ground', and denotes any picture whose main subject is the depiction of a scenic view, such as fields, hillscapes, mountain-scapes, trees, riverscapes, forests, sea views and seascapes. Many famous landscape paintings include human figures, but their presence should be a secondary element in the composition.

Landscape as an independent genre was pioneered by the 17th century school of Dutch painting, and later developed by the likes of Constable and Turner of the English school of landscape painting, who also pioneered outdoor painting. The latter was mastered by Theodore Rousseau, Millet and other members of the Barbizon school of Landscape Painting, who were active around Fontainebleu south of Paris. In Russia, meanwhile, landscape painting was taken up by the Wanderers Art Movement, and then in France by the world famous school of Impressionism led by Monet, Renpir, Pissarro and Sisley.

Famous Landscape Paintings

Note: For an explanation of modern landscapes by Monet, Turner and the like, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

John Constable (1776-1837)

Boatbuilding Near Flatford Mill (1815)
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
The Hay Wain (1821)
National Gallery, London.

JMW Turner (1775-1851)

Burning of the House of Lords & Commons (1835)
Philadelphia Art Museum.
Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842)
Tate Collection.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)

Ville d'Avray (c.1867)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Thomas Cole (1801-48)

American Lake Scene (1844)
Detroit Institute of Arts.
For more, see: Hudson River School of Landscape Painting (1825-75).

George Caleb Bingham (1811-79)

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
See also: Luminism (1850-75).

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75)

The Gleaners (1857)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

Cotopaxi (1862)
Detroit Institute of Arts.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Poppies Near Argenteuil (1873)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Water Lilies (1903) Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Lower Norwood under Snow (1870)
National Gallery, London.
The Vegetable Garden (1879)
Hermitage, St Petersburg.
For more, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting (1870-1910)

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Misty Morning (1874)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
The Road at Louveciennes, Winter (1874)
Private Collection.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Saint-Remy (1889)
National Gallery, London.
See also: History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930).

Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

Boston Common at Twilight (1886)
Museum of Fine arts, Boston.
For more, see: American Impressionism (1880-1900).

NOTE: See also: Best Landscape Artists (1600-present).

Still Life

A "still life painting" typically comprises an arrangement of objects (such as flowers or any group of mundane objects) laid out on a table. It derives from the Dutch word 'Stilleven', a term used in 17th century Dutch painting to describe pictures previously entitled 'Fruit' or 'Flower Pieces'. A form of still life painting that contains biblical or moral messages, is known as Vanitas painting - as practiced by exponents of Dutch Realism like Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83), Willem Kalf (1622-93) and Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681).

Famous Still Life Paintings

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

A Young Hare (1502)
Watercolour painting, Albertina, Vienna.

Great Piece of Turf (1503)
Watercolour painting, Albertina, Vienna.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83)

Still-Life with Lobster and Nautilus Cup (1634)
Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56)

An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1640)
National Gallery, London.

Willem Kalf (1619-93)

Still Life with Chinese Porcelain Jar (1662)
Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.

Jean Chardin (1699-1779)

The Silver Tureen (1728)
Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97)

Still Life with Goldfish (1974)
Oil and magna on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

NOTE: See also: Best Still Life Painters (1600-present).


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