Painting Genres
Types, Classification, Hierarchy of Paintings.

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Detail showing the Virgin Mary, from
The Deposition (c.1435-40) (Descent
From the Cross
), the famous history
painting by Northern Renaissance
artist, Roger Van der Weyden, one
of the greatest practitioners of
history painting.

The 5 Painting Genres
Traditional Classification of Paintings

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 (Académie des Beaux-Arts). The five types of fine art painting, listed in order of their official ranking or importance, are as follows:

1. History Painting (works with message or moralistic content)
2. Portraits (individual, group or self-portraits)
3. Genre-painting (everyday scenes)
4. Landscapes
5. Still Life

Portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan
(1501-04) by Giovanni Bellini.

The Art of Painting: An Allegory
( The Artist's Studio) (1647) by
Jan Vermeer, one of the world's
most famous genre-paintings.

Why Paintings Were Ranked

This 'hierarchy of genres' was adopted because it reflected Italian Renaissance values about what was the 'best' type of art. In Italy, where most art was public and commissioned by the Church, 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 ranking system led to increasing controversy and debate within the official art world - not least because the Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance (Flanders, Holland, Germany and England) developed quite different painting traditions and methods from those in Italy.

Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1895)
by Paul Cezanne.

First, unlike in Italy and Spain, Protestant Northern Europe possessed fewer religious patrons who were interested in commissioning large scale historical works. Artists thus turned to middle-class patrons who wanted small scale portable artworks. Second, the North European climate was less suitable for fresco painting and more suitable for oils. Thus movements like the Dutch Realist School began to specialize in small-scale easel-painting encompassing portraiture, genre paintings and still lifes, since these types of picture exploited the medium of oil paint to greatest effect.

Another problem concerned the rigidity of the fine art academies, who continued to espouse the 'traditional' style of teaching - known as academic art - with few concessions to new art styles - such as Romanticism or Realism - or to developing genres such as landscape and still life. By the 19th century, debate raged between advocates of traditionalist academic-style painting and their more open-minded critics.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords
and Commons (1835) by Turner, one
of England's most famous painters.

For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

Examples of Famous Paintings In All Genres

History Genre

Traditionally the most-respected of all the genres, history paintings are not limited to those depicting 'historic 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. The latter might include Christian art, involving Saints or other Biblical figures, pagan divinities, mythological heroes as well as real-life historical figures. Such pictures, traditionally large-scale public artworks, aim to elevate the morals of the community.

Famous History Paintings:

Sandro Botticelli: La Primavera (1483-4);
Sandro Botticelli: Birth of Venus (1484-6)
Rogier van de Weyden: Descent From the Cross (1440);
Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper (1497);
Raphael: School of Athens (1511);
Michelangelo: Genesis Fresco, (Sistine Chapel);
Michelangelo: Last Judgment Fresco (Sistine Chapel);
Jacopo Tintoretto: The Annunciation (1583-7);
Nicolas Poussin: The Crossing of the Red Sea (1634);
Caravaggio: The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601);
Peter Paul Rubens: Samson and Delilah (1609);
Rembrandt: Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (1656);
Giambattista Tiepolo: Apollo Bringing the Bride (1750);
Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat (1793);
Francisco Goya: The Third of May (1808);
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze: Washington Crossing the Delaware River (1851);
Pablo Picasso: Guernica (1937).


Portraiture Genre

Portraits are pictures of people, deities or mythological figures in human form. The genre includes group-portraits as well as individual compositions. A portrait of an individual may be face-only, 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, including the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo and Neo-classical styles. 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 portraiture, and other twentieth century portrait artists, and the portraits painted by Picasso as well as various other Surrealist and Pop-Art portraiture. This genre also includes self portraits.

Famous Examples of Portraiture:

Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait (1434);
Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (1505);
Titian: Portrait of a Man (1512);
Lucas Cranach the Elder: Martin Luther (c.1530).
Hans Holbein the Younger: Henry VIII (c.1540)
Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Summer (1573);
Frans Hals: The Laughing Cavalier (1624);
Anthony Van Dyck: Charles I, At The Hunt (1635)
Diego Velazquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650);
Rembrandt: The Suicide of Lucretia (1666);
Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1660);
Gilbert Stewart: George Washington (1796);
Theodore Gericault: Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1819);
James Whistler: Arrangement in Grey and Black (1871);
John Singer Sargent: Portrait of Madame X (1883-4);
Paul Cezanne: The Boy in the Red Waistcoat (1894);
Paul Gaugin: Young Breton Woman (1889);
Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Dora Maar (1942);
Alexei von Jawlensky: Head of a Woman (1910);
Otto Dix: Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926);
Graham Sutherland: Portrait of Somerset Maugham (1949);
Andy Warhol: Marilyn (1967); the ultimate icon of the Pop-Art movement.
David Hockney: Mr and Mrs Clark (1970);
Lucien Freud: Naked Man With Rat (1977).

For a list of the Top 50 Portraits, see: Greatest Portrait Paintings.

For nudity in painting and sculpture, see:
Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20)
Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).

Supreme exponents of self-portraiture include: the Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, Baroque master Rembrandt, the tragic 19th century expressionist Vincent Van Gogh, the short-lived Austrian prodigy Egon Schiele and the moody German painter Max Beckmann.

For examples of portraiture in Ireland, see Irish Portrait Artists.


This category of painting - confusingly referred to as genre-paintings or genre-scenes - denotes pictures that portray ordinary scenes of everyday life. Subjects encompass domestic settings, interiors, celebrations, tavern scenes, markets and other street situations. Whatever the precise content, the scene should be portrayed in a non-idealized way, and the characters should not be endowed with any heroic or dramatic attributes. The foremost example of this type of art was the Genre Painting of the Dutch Realism School. For famous exponents, see Dutch Realist Artists.

Famous Genre-Pictures:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69) The Peasant Wedding (1566);
William Powell Frith: The Railway Station (1862);
Honore Daumier: The Third Class Carriage (1864);
Ilya Repin: Barge-Haulers on the Volga (1870-3);
Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic (1875);
Pierre Auguste Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880);
Max Liebermann: A Country Brasserie, Brannenburg Bavaria (1894);
Anders Zorn: Girls from Dalarna Having a Bath (1908);
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Berlin Street Scene (1913);
Walter Sickert: Ennui (1914);
Otto Dix: Pimp With Prostitutes (1922);
Maurice Utrillo: Flag over the Town Hall (1924);
L.S. Lowry: Coming from the Mill (1930);
Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942).

Landscape Genre

Derived from the Dutch word 'landschap', a patch of ground - the term 'landscape' 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.

Following on from the English School of landscape painting, famous styles include the Barbizon School of Landscape Painting, near Fontainebleu in France, the Wanderers Art Movement in Russia, and of course the supreme exponents of plein-air art The French Impressionist School of Landscape Painting. For details of landscape art in Ireland, see Irish Landscape Artists.

Famous Landscapes:

Claude Lorrain (1600-82) Landscape/Marriage of Isaac & Rebecca (1648);
Bernardo Bellotto: View of Warsaw from the Royal Castle (1772);
Giovanni Panini: Ruins with Figures;
Thomas Girtin: The White House Chelsea (1799);
John Sell Cotman: Chirk Aquaduct (1804);
Caspar David Friedrich: Winter Landscape (1811);
John Constable: Boat-building Near Flatford Mill (1815);
JMW Turner: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812);
Thomas Cole: Last of the Mohicans (series) (1826);
JMW Turner: The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835);
Theodore Rousseau: Sunset in the Auvergne (1830);
Frederic Edwin Church: The Heart of the Andes (1859);
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Ville d'Avray (1875);
James McNeil Whistler: Harmony in Grey - Chelsea in Ice (1864);
Claude Monet: Impression Sunrise (1873);
Alfred Sisley: Snow at Louveciennes (1878);
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: The Bridge of the Railway at Chatou (1881);
Camille Pissaro: Landscape at Chaponval (1880);
Isaac Levitan: Secluded Monastery (1890);
Claude Monet: Water Lilies (1908);
Cezanne: Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Trees and a House;
Alexei von Jawlensky: Landscape, Murnau (1909);
Oskar Kokoschka: View of the Thames in the Evening (1926);
Max Ernst: The Entire City (1935);
Ben Nicholson: St Ives, Cornwall (1943-45).

Still Lifes

A 'still life'' 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 by 17th century Dutch artists to describe pictures previously entitled 'Fruit' or 'Flower Pieces'. A form of still life painting that contains biblical or moral messages concerning human behaviour, is known as Vanitas painting - practiced by artists 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 Pictures:

Albrecht Durer: Hare (1502);
Juan Sanchez Cotan: Still Life with Game Fowl (c.1602);
Frans Snyders: Pantry Scene with a Page (c.1617);
Francisco de Zurbaran: Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose (1633);
Pieter Claesz: A Vanitas Still Life (1645);
Willem Kalf: Still Life with Lobster, Drinking Horn and Glasses (c.1653);
Samuel Hoogstraten: The Slippers (1654);
Harmen Steenwyck: The Vanities of Human Life (1645);
Jan Davidsz de Heem: Still Life of Fruit (1670);
Rachel Ruysch: Flowers and Insects (1711);
Jean-Simeon Chardin: Still Life with Bottle of Olives (1760);
Theodore Gericault: Anatomical Pieces (1818);
Paul Cezanne: Pears on a Chair (1882);
Van Gogh: Sunflowers (1888);
Henri Fantin-Latour: White and Pink Roses (1890);
Emil Nolde: Red Poppies (1920);
Georges Braque: Studio V (1949);
Giorgio Morandi: Still Life (1960).

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