National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: The Emergence of New Genres

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The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the emergence of new types of painting in Italy. For the first time since antiquity, landscape, still life, and genre pictures all became established as independent subjects worthy of attention by the finest artists. Elements of these had always been present in other kinds of pictures: landscape backdrops were prominent, for example, in depictions of the Flight into Egypt and other religious subjects. Portrait painters incorporated as still-life elements objects that helped define a sitter’s position, prestige, or profession. Similarly, genre scenes—the word genre describes realistic depictions of ordinary people and everyday activities—sometimes appeared as background vignettes with moralizing undercurrents.

It was in northern Europe that artists first began to specialize in landscape. Their so-called world landscapes, which offered a God’s-eye view of the earth—wide in scope and complete in detail—were popular with Italian audiences. In the early 1500s Vasari claimed “there is no cobbler’s house without its landscape.” Although northern landscapes prompted artists such as Raphael to focus greater attention on their own background settings, it was not until the end of the sixteenth century that Italian landscape came into its own. This was due, in part, to the influence of the Carracci and their renewed emphasis on the careful observation of nature. Annibale Carracci’s river scene on this tour is among the very first Italian landscape paintings.

Still life seems to have appeared more or less simultaneously in Italy, northern Europe, and Spain. Still-life artists turned their sharp focus on plants, animals, and man-made objects just as scientists and natural philosophers were developing a new paradigm for learning about the world around them. In place of abstract theory and generalization was a new emphasis on investigation. Exploration, by Spain and the Netherlands especially, increased interest in goods from far-flung parts of the globe and the need for accurate renderings of biological specimens. At the same time, trade and capitalism created a new picture-buying market—one made up of prosperous men and women eager to see their possessions meticulously recorded by the painter’s brush.

It was in this climate too, though somewhat later, that Italian genre painting evolved. Poets were ridding their verse of elaborate rhetorical embellishments, focusing more directly on the subject at hand. Genre painting did not rely on a literary theme—stories taken from the Bible, mythology, or ancient history—but spoke in a contemporary vernacular, free of bombast and, often, with humor. These were pictures from actual experience, understandable on their own terms. While Italian collectors continued to prize mythological and religious pictures, these grand themes began to share wall space with scenes of peasants, street life, and tavern brawls—at first by Dutch and Flemish artists, but by the late 1600s by Italian painters as well.

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