In eighteenth-century France, the term peinture de genre (genre painting) suggested any type of painting that was not history painting. Depicting serious themes drawn from history, literature, or the Bible, history painting had been considered the highest aspiration of the artist since this theory of art was developed during the Renaissance some three hundred years earlier. History painting was officially sanctioned and promoted by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which dominated French artistic life until the Revolution of 1789. It was favored in the training given to young artists, in the election of history painters as the Academy's senior officers, and in the privileged position accorded to their work at the Academy's exclusive exhibitions in the Salon of the royal palace of the Louvre. Thus the official hierarchy of subject matter categorized as "genre" other types of painting--such as landscapes, still lifes, hunting scenes, portraits, or scenes from daily life. However, in modern times (and thus in our exhibition) the definition of genre painting has narrowed and now designates scenes of daily life, be they real or imaginary.
In spite of the official promotion of history painting and various attempts of the Crown and its academic agents to encourage it, other more accessible subjects appealed to most art collectors and the public. Nearly all history painters also produced genre paintings. Most of these works were first acquired by a wealthy elite of French financiers and nobility and, such was the international reputation of French painters, by members of several princely houses abroad (in Berlin, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, and Vienna, for example). In an age before the existence of art museums, the introduction in 1737 of regular public art exhibitions at the Salon in Paris made many of these paintings at least temporarily available to a wider audience, and stimulated the development of a general public interest in contemporary art. Although the exhibited works would soon disappear to grace silken walls, the opportunity to view them, to compare and contrast the production of different artists (though only members of the Academy could exhibit there), soon gave rise to a new type of literature--art criticism--in the press, pamphlets, and polemical brochures. There is no doubt that the market, and the public exhibition, encouraged artists to tackle subjects with popular appeal and to paint them in an alluring way. The level of artistic craftsmanship, which was very high in this period, was calculated to attract not only the discriminating connoisseur-collector, but also the general Salon visitor. Subject matter was designed to engage the spectator by numerous strategies, such as intriguing narrative, humor, tearful drama, moral example, social outrage, sweet sentiment, and titillation. Of course, subject matter changed with the intellectual fashions and the moral climate of the day.
To enter the world of Watteau or Chardin, imaginative effort is required, for they worked in a culture very different from ours. During the eight-year regency that followed the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the center of French society shifted from the royal palace at Versailles to Paris. The refined social life that flourished in the more intimate and private town houses of Paris replaced the pomp and ceremony of Versailles and set the tone for the rest of the century. A sophisticated elite cultivated a life refined to a degree scarcely seen before or since, with intimate social and intellectual gatherings, conversation, letter writing, and a fascination with the movements of the heart.