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, was a very important vehicle for cultural ideas and values in mid-nineteenth century America. In many way, genre painting helped to define what and who we think of as 'American.'  The growth in importance of genre painting betweeen the 1830s and 1850s 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 small-town, working-class Midwesterner, even though the bulk of the population increasingly lived in big cities and on the coasts.  However, although genre paintings define what and who we think of as “American,” we should remember that the people who bought genre paintings were not the rural lower classes who are often depicted in the works, but typically well-off, cosmopolitan city-dwellers. Also remember 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.  From the beginning there was already 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.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1)  (*Maika Bernard*)  Closely analyze Emmanuel Leutze's Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1860) as propaganda for Manifest Destiny. How does Leutze try to convince Americans to 'Go West'? Do some light research about the work online, and be sure to look closely at the details.

     2)  (*Vicky Lento*)  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. Using Benjamin West's Death of Wolfe (1770) and William Sidney Mount's Truant Gamblers (1835), systematically contrast history painting and genre painting in terms of their subject matter, their styles, their patronage (who tends to buy each), their size and intended settings (where each was usually hung/displayed), their messages, and their overall social purposes.

     3)  (*Sophie Post*) Compare/contrast how African-Americans are represented in John Lewis Krimmel's Quilting Frolic (1813), William Sidney Mount's The Bones Player (1856), and Eastman Johnson's Old Kentucky Home (1859). What roles are they playing in the images and how do they define Black identity and race relations in America? Relate to historical context.  To what degree are they stereotyped versus individualized?

4)  (*Robin Hockett*)  Compare/contrast how Native Americans are depicted in Edward Hicks's The Peaceable Kingdom (1834), John Mix Stanley's Osage Scalp Dance (1845), Seth Eastman's Lacrosse Playing among the Sioux Indians (1851), and Frances Palmer's Across the Continent (1868). What roles are they playing in each image's narrative and how do they define Native American identity and race relations in America? Relate to historical context.

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, 1834

William Sidney Mount, Truant Gamblers, 1835