american art

from the colonial period to world war two

genre painting


people, terms, and concepts: genre painting, Jacksonian democracy, Folk Art

Genre painting, although considered a 'minor genre' like landscape, was a very important vehicle for cultural ideas and values in mid-nineteenth century America.  The growth in importance of genre painting coincides with the advent of Jacksonian democracy and its extension of the vote to the lower classes, and it elevates rural life and the working classes to the center of the American stage, as opposed to the ‘elite’ culture of the more educated, industrialized, wealthy, and cosmopolitan East Coast. From this point forward, interestingly, the archetypal American will be seen as a rural, small-town, working-class Midwesterner, even though the bulk of the population is increasingly living in big cities and on the coasts.  However, although genre paintings are seen as archetypically “American,” we should remember that the people who bought genre paintings were not the rural lower classes who are depicted in the works, but typically well-off city-dwellers; and that although genre paintings look realistic and documentary, they were based on types (or even stereotypes), not on real people; and they are by no means a realistic representation of rural life.  There is a strong element of nostalgia and escapism in genre paintings, just as in picturesque landscapes.

Readings: Craven chapters 16, 19, and pp. 210-13 and 367-70

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.

     1)  History painting and genre painting both tend to show groups of people engaged in some kind of activity, but other than that they are very different.  Systematically contrast history painting and genre painting in terms of their subject matter, their styles (composition, color, etc.), their patronage (who tends to buy each), their meanings or messages, and their overall social purpose.  Choose one example of each that we did not talk about in class to demonstrate your points (email me your works by Monday evening).

     2) Native Americans and African Americans show up in several of the works depicted in Craven ch. 16, 19, and the bits of 15 that deal with the Western landscape.  Why?  What different roles do they play and how do  these roles suit the apparent ideological (social, political, and economic) purposes of the works?  Email me by Monday evening with the works you choose to analyze..

George Caleb Bingham, Boatmen on the Missouri, 1846

George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1852

Eastman Johnson, Old Kentucky Home, 1859

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1832-34

Francis Edmonds, The Image Peddler, 1844