Art History 101: The Difference Between “Genres” and “Genre Painting”

Wassilij_Grigorjewitsch_Perow_004

The hunters at rest (Охотники на привале) (1871), a genre painting by Russian artist Vasily Perov

Ok, so this might get confusing. First of all, there’s a traditional hierarchy of genres in Western art history, and genre painting is actually one of those genres, even though it’s called “genre painting” which kind of makes no sense. Wait, let me back up: genres, a.k.a. categories, in Western art history are not styles (like Impressionism, Pop Art, Realism) but are instead about the types of scenes that are being painted (portrait, landscape, still life). Let me back up again: a “genre painting” is not, as you might think, a painting that fits into any one of these genres; instead, a genre painting is a type of scene and is therefore “a genre” in itself.

Let’s see if we can make sense of this.

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Artist Feature: Who was Odilon Redon?

Self-Portrait, 1880

Self-Portrait, 1880

Movement/Style: Symbolism

Country: Odilon Redon spent his life in France, growing up in Bordeaux and later living and working in Paris.

Well, who was he?

Odilon Redon was part of the Symbolism movement, a European movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Symbolist art is similar to Surrealism in that it doesn’t seem to make any sense. However, there is one big difference between Symbolism and Surrealism: In Surrealism, it’s not supposed to make any sense. But in Symbolism, everything means something.

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“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

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