Hierarchy of the Genres
Ranking System of History Pictures, Portraits, Genre-Paintings, Landscapes, Still Lifes.

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The Death of Sardanapalus (1826)
One of the great history paintings
by Eugene Delacroix, who opposed
the dull polish of academic painting.

Hierarchy of the Genres
Academic Art Ranking System


The Academic Hierarchy of the Genres
History Painting
Still Life


Contemporary Chalk Portrait (2013)
by Eric Jensen.

Vladimirka (The Road to Vladimir)
(1892) Tretyakov Gallery. A typical
wide horizon Russian landscape
by Isaac Levitan.


In fine art, the term 'genre' refers to the differing type or category into which a painting may be classified. Somewhat confusingly the same word appears in the phrase 'genre painting' which is itself a type or 'genre' of painting - specifically, pictures of everyday scenes. The established painting genres are: Landscape, Portraiture, Genre-Scenes, History, and Still Life. Over the centuries, debate has raged over the relative value and importance of these painting categories, and whether there is a natural hierarchy among them.

The Academic Hierarchy

The most famous ranking-system of painting genres was that established by the great European Academies, such as the Academy of Art in Rome (Accademia di San Luca), the Academy of Art in Florence (Accademia del Disegno), the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, and the Royal Academy in London. It was annunciated in 1669, by the art-theoretician Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy - a body dominated by the dictatorial Charles Le Brun (1619-90).

Felibien ranked the genres as follows: (1) History Painting; (2) Portraits; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscapes; (5) Still Life.

This ranking system - based on traditions of Greek and Roman art established during the era of Renaissance art - was used by the academies as a basis for awarding prizes and scholarships as well as spaces in their exhibitions (Salons). It also had a significant impact on the perceived monetary value of an artwork, in the sale rooms of auction houses.


The Academic hierarchy aroused considerable controversy and discontent among artists and movements, not least because it relegated a whole category of painting (Still Life, Interiors) to a lowly position in the pecking order, to the detriment of the Flemish and Venetian schools.

The Painter's Studio; A Real Allegory
(1855) A great genre-painting by
Gustave Courbet, the anti-Salon,
anti-Academy leader of French Realism.

See: Best Artists of All Time.
See: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Bouquet of Flowers (1884)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
A stunning still-life painting
by Ivan Kramskoy.


History painting, the highest category, sometimes called the 'grande genre' - denoted paintings that portrayed an inspirational or ethically uplifting message set in a historical, religious, or literary context. For centuries, the most common type of history painting was Christian art, which was hardly surprising since the Church was the principal paymaster.

The most famous examples of Renaissance religious art are Michelangelo's Genesis and Last Judgment fresco murals in the Vatican Sistine Chapel, and the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. In Northern Europe, the Flemish school produced a number of outstanding narrative paintings. See, for instance, The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck; The Portinari Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes; The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grunewald; and The Deposition, by Roger Van Der Weyden.

Later examples of history painting include: The Entombment (1602) by Caravaggio; Descent from the Cross (1611) and Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629) by Rubens; Christ on the Cross (1632) by Diego Velazquez; The Crossing of the Red Sea (1634) by Nicolas Poussin; The Third of May (1808) by Goya; Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso.



Portrait art, the second highest genre, included primarily the painting of heroic individuals larger-than-life for public viewing, although it lent itself also to smaller-scale private portraiture, as well as self-portraits.

Examples of portraiture by famous artists include: The Laughing Cavalier (1624) by Frans Hals; numerous works by the German portraitists Hans Holbein the Younger and Lucas Cranach the Elder; Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) by Diego Velazquez; George Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stewart; Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1819) by Theodore Gericault; Olympia (1863) by Edouard Manet; The Boy in the Red Waistcoat (1894) by Paul Cezanne; Boy with a Pipe (1905) and Portrait of Dora Maar (1942) by Picasso; Head (1910) by Alexei von Jawlensky; Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1912) by Juan Gris; Portrait of the Artists's Wife (1912) by Henri Matisse; Reclining Nude, 1917 by Amedeo Modigliani; Mr and Mrs Clark (1970) by David Hockney. One of the most famous contemporary portrait artists was Andy Warhol whose celebrity silkscreen portraits became icons of the Pop-Art movement.

For more examples of portraiture by different art schools, see: Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo/Neo-Classical, Nineteenth Century, Impressionist, Expressionist, Surrealist/Pop-Art, Twentieth Century, and portraits by Picasso. For details of portraitists from Ireland, see Irish Portrait Artists.

Genre Paintings

Genre-painting concerned everyday scenes representing ordinary life, although they might include certain landscapes or portraits. While history and portrait pictures were ideally large (and displayed in public), genre artworks were small-scale paintings for domestic viewing. The Dutch Realist school of genre painting, led by Jan Vermeer, was the supreme exponent of this genre.

Examples of genre paintings include: Turkish Bath (1863) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres; the Dance Class (1874) by Edgar Degas; Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880) by Pierre Renoir; Bathers at Asnieres (1884) by Georges Seurat; At the Moulin Rouge (1892) by Toulouse-Lautrec; Les Grandes Baigneuses (1906) by Paul Cezanne; Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper. For information about genre-works from Ireland, see Irish Genre Painters.

NOTE: The first three categories are primarily concerned with the depiction of humans and human actions. Pictures from the final two genres did not need to include any people.


Landscape painting, the fourth category, denoted paintings whose main theme was the portrayal of a scenic view (countryside, seascape, rivers, mountains, townscape etc). Thus a peopled landscape might be classified as a genre painting, if the artist was mainly concerned with portraying human action.

Examples of the landscape genre include: An Extensive Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Village Church (1665) by Jacob van Ruisdael; Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice (1741) by Bernardo Bellotto; The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable; The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) by JMW Turner; The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet; Souvenir de Mortefontaine (1864) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; Impression, Sunrise (1873) by Claude Monet; The Moret Bridge in the Sun (1892) by Alfred Sisley; In the Garden (1894) by Edouard Vuillard; Haystack in the Morning, Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet; Boulevard Monmartre (1897) by Camille Pissaro.

For more examples of landscape art, see: Barbizon school of landscapes, the Russian Wanderers Movement, Impressionist landscape painting, and famous landscape paintings. For information about rural landscape painting in Ireland, see Irish Landscape Artists.

Still Life

Still Life painting was considered to be the least elevating of all the genres. Typically, it concerned the representation of of objects such as flowers, fruits, foodstuffs as well as kitchen and table implements. Animals and humans might also be included.

Examples of still-lifes include: Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits and Vegetable in a Market (1614) by Frans Snyders; Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose (1633) by Francisco Zurbaran; The Slippers (1654) by Samuel van Hoogstraten; Still Life of Fruit (1670) by Jan Davidsz de Heem; Anatomical Pieces (1818) by Theodore Gericault; Pears on a Chair (1882) by Paul Cezanne; Sunflowers (1888) by Van Gogh.


Academic art theory considered that this hierarchy was justified because it reflected the inherent moral force of each genre. An artist could communicate a moral message much more clearly through a history picture, a portrait or a genre painting, rather than a landscape or still life. In addition, the Greeks and the Italian Renaissance believed that the highest form of art was the pictorial representation of the human form, in figure sculpture, figure drawing and figure painting. Thus landscapes and still-lifes - which required no human figures - were viewed as lesser genres. Lastly, the Academic ranking system reflected each category's display value. History painting was the largest and most suitable genre for public disply, followed by portraiture, genre-works and landscapes, while still life canvases were typically the smallest and executed for domestic viewing.

• For other art movements and periods, see: History of Art.
• For more about different categories of painting, see: Homepage.

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