GENRE PAINTING focuses on the mundane, trivial incidents of everyday life, depicting people the viewer can easily identify with employed in situations that tell a story. These anecdotal works became popular in the United States around 1830, when the country grew prosperous enough that people had the means and leisure to collect works of art. By the 1840s, the American Art Union was exhibiting and selling both paintings and print reproductions, which could be distributed at low cost to a broad audience. As a result, genre paintings such as William Sidney Mount's Bargaining for a Horse (1835)or George Caleb Bingham's Jolly Flatboatmen (1846)became widely dispersed, popular images.
Some of America's greatest genre paintings were executed by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Homer's favorite theme was the relationship of man to nature, expressed dramatically in canvases such as Eight Bells (1886), which pits the skill of a sailor against the awesome power of the sea. Homer's scenes of outdoor pastimes such as hunting and fishing are painted with a broad touch and vivid colors that recall the French Impressionists, without being directly influenced by them. Eakins based his genre subjects on everyday life in the area around his native Philadelphia. His paintings of rowers on the city's Schuylkill River are painted with a solid command of human anatomy and great sensitivity to sparkling atmospheric effects.
The expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler, whose works were enthusiastically collected by American art patrons, stressed the refined and exotic aspects of contemporary life in genre paintings such as Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864), which shows a young woman in a kimono admiring a seventeenth-century Chinese jar. John Singer Sargent, another cosmopolitan artist, occasionally painted genre subjects such as In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879), a view of people enjoying this popular Parisian site. William Merritt Chase also portrayed scenes of genteel American society at the close of the century.
In the twentieth century, these views of polite domesticity painted in an impressionist manner continued in the work of Childe Hassam. In contrast, the grittier aspects of urban life attracted a group of artists centered in Philadelphia and New York: Robert Henri, George Luks, William J. Glackens, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn.
Their scenes of laborers and life in New York's slums reveal a social conscience and sympathy for the common lot.
Because genre painting is inherently figurative art, it survived in the twentieth century in the work of painters who stood outside the floodtide of abstraction. Charles Demuth, for example, created exquisite watercolors of circus themes or homoerotic bathhouse scenes, and George Bellows depicted the raucous night life of American cities in Stag at Sharkey's (1909). Several decades later, life on the middle western Plains became the subject matter for a group of artists known as "regionalists," whose work stands as a rejection of international modernism. Thomas Hart Benton's farm laborers at work or play, or Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic (1930), have become symbols of the American heartland. Genre painting did not survive past the 1930s, except in rare instances such as the work of Milton Avery, who represented recreational scenes of sailing or sunbathing. His simplified figures painted in flat colors manage to integrate genre subject matter with a modernist esthetic.
Hills, Patricia. The Painters' America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810– 1910. New York: Praeger, 1974.
See alsoArt: Painting ; Ashcan School .