Skip to Main Content

The Emergence of New Genres

In the left half of this horizontal painting, a bare-chested, seated woman, Venus, is tended by three nude women and several child-like, nude, winged putti. All the women and putti have pale, peachy skin. To our right, a statue of a man stands on an ornately carved pedestal on a veranda in front of a distant landscape. Venus sits facing our right and she looks into a rectangular, black-framed mirror she holds up with her left hand. Her blond hair is braided and she has delicate features. A sky-blue cloth wraps around her waist and lap, and covers her legs. One foot rests on the lap of a seated putto, who ties on a sandal. Another putto helps hold up the mirror. A third putto near us, in front of Venus, pulls strings of pearls from a gold box and the fourth, in the lower left corner, lifts a comb and long needle out of a gilded, rectangular box. Two of the women behind Venus tend to her hair and the third holds up and gazes at a teardrop-shaped pearl. A dusky rose-pink curtain falls behind the women and putti. The view opens onto a terrace on the right half of the painting. A gray stone sculpture of a nude man holding up a bunch of grapes with one hand and bracing a tall stick with the other stands facing our left on an ornately carved base. The base is made up of a wide, shallow bowl above a single pedestal foot. In the distance, two people sit against a tall balustrade. The person on the left wears gold-colored armor, a helmet, and holds a long spear. The bearded man to the right appears to be nude as he leans to the side toward his companion, resting his hand and chin along a staff propped on the bench's seat. Trees and mountains in the landscape beyond are painted with brown, deep gray, and forest and sage green. A sliver of white sky along the horizon brightens an otherwise steel-gray sky.


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.

Annibale Carracci, Italian, 1560 - 1609, Venus Adorned by the Graces, 1590/1595, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.9

1 of 7
Melons, apples, pears, and other fruits, along with a glass vessel and chestnuts, are arranged along a tabletop covered by a white cloth in this horizontal still life painting. The left edge of the table is close to that edge of the canvas, and the table extends off the right edge. Starting at the left, the melon near the edge of the table has a forest-green rind with coral-colored flesh. Just behind it, to our right, the spherical glass vessel is about half filled with amber liquid. Next to the melon and in front of the vessel is a dark-skinned fig and a cluster of three red berries. At the center of the composition, a pewter plate holds three yellow and red apples and a fourth piece of fruit, perhaps a pear or apple, cut in half. There are also several green grapes, a pomegranate split open to expose the ruby-red seeds, and two more black-skinned figs cut so the rose-pink flesh shows. A bunch of dark purple grapes and a green leaf spill out of the right side onto the table. A wedge of pink watermelon with black seeds sits on the far right toward the back of the table. A yellow and pink pear stands near the front of the table to our right, and a handful of chestnuts is scattered between the pear and watermelon. Two tiny insects, like small flies, sit on the tablecloth, one near the melon to our left and the other on the front of the tablecloth near the lower center. Bright light from the upper left glints off the carafe, the edge of the plate, and the seeds of the pomegranate and watermelon, and it creates deep shadows around the fruit. The background lightens from earth brown along the top to sable brown near the table to our right.

Long thought to have been painted by Caravaggio, this still life shares his naturalistic arrangement of foodstuffs, placed close to the front of the picture plane. Here, however, the painter has used light to soften the forms of ripe fruit—edges of the highlighted apple on the pewter plate seem to blur and dissolve. This is characteristic of works painted by an artist dubbed the Pensionante del Saraceni, literally, the boarder of Saraceni. Carlo Saraceni was one of the many painters in Rome who were heavily influenced by Caravaggio.

A slight elevation in viewpoint reduces the formality of this composition, but it nevertheless evinces the strong sense of geometry underlying its organization—stronger than in Saraceni’s or Caravaggio’s own paintings. Notice, for example, the repetition of round form in the melons, plates, and swelling wine carafe. This insistent structure, together with a certain elusive and undefinable “melancholy,” has suggested to some scholars that the painter was French. Saraceni was known as a francophile and is documented as having accommodated at least one French artist in his house—hence the name Pensionante. Some dozen paintings are thought to be by the same hand but the artist’s identity remains unknown.

Pensionante del Saraceni, French (?), active c. 1610/1620, Still Life with Fruit and Carafe, c. 1610/1620, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.159

2 of 7
We look through shadowed trees at a river winding into the distance in this horizontal landscape painting. Close to us, a cluster of three thin trees and a larger central tree are deep in shadow, which contrasts with the light-filled scene beyond. The topaz-blue river curves from the lower right corner, across the canvas, and into the distance at the center. A few spindly trees grow along the riverbank in front of a hut with a thatched roof to our right. The bank to our left is lined with reeds and tall grasses. Behind the central shadowed tree, a long, low, narrow boat is occupied by four people with pale skin. To our left, a person with a dark garment and white collar reclines near a seated man wearing yellow and a feathered cap. To our right, another person reclines near the boatman who pushes the boat through the water using a long pole. The harvest yellow and sage green of the riverbanks and vegetation beyond the boats fades to hazy, pale blue mountains along the horizon line, which comes just over halfway up the composition. White clouds float across a blue sky above.

Annibale Carracci and his brother Agostino, along with their older cousin Lodovico, established an academy in Bologna. Rejecting what they viewed as the exaggeration of mannerism, they returned to an approach that was grounded in careful observation of the natural world. It is not surprising, then, to find that Annibale and Agostino created some of the first Italian landscape paintings—scenes in which the landscape itself takes center stage rather than serving as a mere backdrop.

Here, the textures of plants—soft foliage, wet reeds, and the mirroring surface of the distant lake—are all carefully recorded. Small figures are subordinate to the world around them. It has been suggested that the figures reclining in the boat are lovers on an illicit outing, but their presence seems intended simply to give scale and a human dimension to nature. The poling boatman in his bright clothing serves best, not as an actor in some narrative, but in a purely aesthetic role as a means to draw our eye into the center of the composition. Effortless and spontaneous brushwork lend the kind of vibrant naturalism that suggests a real place. Biographers noted that the Carracci drew extensively out-of-doors; these final canvases were, however, painted in the studio.

Annibale Carracci, Italian, 1560 - 1609, River Landscape, c. 1590, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.58

3 of 7
The head and pale face of a bearded man with a ring of interwoven branches of thorns over his chin-length, wavy, reddish-brown hair floats against a white cloth that has been hung over a wooden rod in this vertical painting. The cloth fills the composition. At its center, the man’s head faces us and he looks down with heavy-lidded, brown eyes. His lips are parted, and his cheeks are slightly sunken and shaded with pale lilac purple under high cheekbones. Blood drips down the man’s pallid forehead from the thorns. A brown spot high on his right cheek, on our left, might be a bruise or injury. A soft brown glow surrounds the head. The white cloth is frayed along its front edge, where it rests facing us on a wooden surface along the bottom edge of the painting. The cloth is bunched a little to each side where it drapes over the wooden rod above. The white cloth is painted with tones of pale coral pink, icy blue, silvery white, and dove gray. The background behind the cloth is black.

One of the four principal relics of the Passion preserved in Saint Peter’s in Rome is a cloth miraculously imprinted with the image of Christ’s face. According to legend, conflated from several different sources in the Middle Ages, Veronica handed the cloth to Christ as he struggled under the weight of the cross along the tortuous route to Calvary. After he used the cloth to wipe his brow the image of his face remained. Veronica’s name is often, and probably incorrectly, regarded as being derived from the words vera icon, or “true icon”; more likely it stems from a related eastern Christian tradition about a woman named Berenike.

It is possible that Fetti saw the actual veil when it was installed in the crossing of Saint Peter’s in 1606. He would certainly have been familiar with other paintings of it. Its popularity for painters was due not only to its powerful spiritual impact—Christ’s suffering face, seen isolated from any reference to worldly surroundings, focuses the meditative concentration of the viewer—but also because it seems to have been the first indulgenced image. That is, an indulgence was gained by reciting the proper prayers either in front of the relic itself—or in front of an image of it. (An indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment due for sin.) Painters continued to represent Veronica’s veil, even after the pope prohibited such images in 1616.

Domenico Fetti, Italian, 1589 - 1623, The Veil of Veronica, c. 1618/1622, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.7

4 of 7
Golden light from the upper left illuminates an assortment of vegetables, fish, and live and dead animals arranged among kitchen pots, pans, and bowls in this vertical still life painting. The animals and objects are displayed on three levels, each of which takes up about a third of the composition. Starting at the top: the body of a light brown hare lies over the front edge of a stone ledge, which is draped with a rumpled forest-green, gold-edged cloth. A large golden-brown fowl hangs upside down, its feet tied and the string looped over a nail on the dark brown wall behind the still life. The fowl’s cream-white wings are outstretched, and its head rests along the hare’s body. Five birds with feathers of golden yellow, white, black, and apple red lie in a pile to the left of the hare. A live peacock stands on the green cloth to the right, looking down at the other animals. Its long, caramel-brown tail is closed and is dotted with eyes that look like shiny black buttons. The next level down is made up of a short barrel next to a small wooden stool or table. A butterscotch-brown rooster is perched on the barrel among red onions. A copper bowl overflowing with dark green artichokes and leafy greens sits on the stool to our right. The bottom zone has objects and animals across the ginger-brown floor. To our left, a chicken or rooster stands facing away from us as it looks to our right toward a tall, sealed jug and two dark brown pots. Just behind the pots a gleaming copper bowl is propped up at an angle so we see coral-pink fish inside. The bowl leans against a lustrous brass basin and jug with a duck standing in front of it. A radish, lemon, a couple more fish, and two lobsters lie on the floor or are tucked between the pans and bowls. The space opens onto another dimly lit room beyond the still life, in the upper right corner of the painting. In that room, a woman wearing a long skirt and a white cap is backlit against a rectangular window opening filled with pale blue sky. A spark of orange to our left could be a fire on a raised hearth or stove.

This painting, a compendium of motifs Vassallo used in other pictures, can be seen, and was perhaps considered by the artist himself, as a summing up of his achievements as a still-life artist. Each object has the same uncompromising conviction of reality. They are massed in one enormous display, but Vassallo turned an acute eye on each individually.

Visual description may not, however, be Vassallo’s only motive. Scholars have been tempted to find a symbolic meaning, pointing to abundance or perhaps to God’s provision for men’s needs, both physical and spiritual. In contemporary Dutch still lifes, viewers were reminded of the transience of wealth and life itself by such clues as vessels that were tipped over, insects, or overripe fruit. We do not find these signals here, however.

Another suggestion sees this as an allegory of the Four Elements: air, water, fire, and earth are each represented. The bounty of food includes fruits of the earth and sea as well as birds trapped from the sky. And in the background is the flare of a cooking fire. In collectors’ cabinets, such allegorical themes often provided the organizational principle for the display of wonders like fossils and minerals. Existence of these collections, in fact, helped create a demand for still-life painting.

Antonio Maria Vassallo, Italian, c. 1620 - 1664/1673, The Larder, probably c. 1650/1660, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.91

5 of 7
A woman struggles against a man who grips her shoulder to push her back onto a canopied bed in this vertical painting. Both people have pale skin. Bright light coming from our left illuminates the pair and the bed, while the area beyond is in deep shadow, creating a black background. To our left, the man faces the woman so we see him in profile facing our right, though much of his face is in shadow. He wears a silver breastplate over a white and gold tunic, which has a lion’s face on the sleeve facing us. His thin, gold crown blends into his chestnut-brown hair and a golden-yellow cape slips off his shoulders. He raises his right index finger to his lips as he thrusts his right leg between the woman’s legs, as if striding toward her. The woman’s torso twists away from the man, toward us, and she braces her left hand, to our right, against the bed. She stretches her other arm up to the man’s forehead, her fingers grasping at his hair and coronet. Her face and honey-brown eyes turn up, and her pale pink lips are parted. Her slate-blue gown is torn at the neckline, exposing part of her left breast. Her blond hair is pulled back behind her neck, and dots of pale yellow suggest flower petals or jewels around her temples. The twisting, copper-brown curtains of the bed frame the scene and pool around a gilded, carved horse that decorates the corner of the bedstead, in the lower right corner of the painting. A partly unsheathed sword and a white flower with torn petals lie on the floor near the sandaled feet of the man and woman.

By around 1700 Crespi had developed new genre subjects and cultivated a clientele for these scenes of everyday life. But this canvas—painted around the same time—is instead based on a story from the legendary past of ancient Rome: the rape of the virtuous matron Lucretia by the son of Rome’s Etruscan king, her suicide in the face of family disgrace, and the establishment of the Republic after Lucretia’s kinsmen avenged her honor by driving the king from Rome.

Despite the weight of his historical theme, Crespi’s picture has a directness similar to that found in his genre scenes. We see the speed of Tarquin’s assault by his entanglement in the bed curtain. There is no mistaking the passion and violence of his movement, nor any equivocation over good and evil—Lucretia is bathed in light but Tarquin’s shadow begins to cover her with darkness. Crespi’s conception is unusual. The subject was a popular one, and its formulas well defined. Artists routinely depicted Tarquin as threatening Lucretia with his sword, but Crespi shows his weapon fallen to the floor. Here Tarquin brings his hand to his lips admonishing Lucretia to be silent. Her gesture is more aggressive—and unprecedented. She is not a passive victim but shoves Tarquin’s head in a forceful attempt to repel him. Crespi’s brushwork, quick and energetic, contributes to the drama, as does the strong play of light and dark.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Italian, 1665 - 1747, Tarquin and Lucretia, c. 1695/1700, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.30

6 of 7
A man stands at a coastline with his back to us, gesturing toward a group of seven men sailing on the rolling sea in this horizontal painting. All the people have pale, peach skin. The man standing near us to our left wears a light blue tunic under a shell-pink garment that drapes around his hips and falls to his ankles. A thin gold halo encircles his head over curly brown, shoulder-length hair. Green land extends along the foreground close to us, and trees rise to either side. It is unclear whether the man stands on the land or on the water with bare feet. His body is angled away from us and to our right as he looks and gestures with one arm raised toward the boat on the water beyond. Choppy waves and swirling, dense clouds ranging from topaz to navy blue dominate the landscape. Each of the seven men in the sailboat does something different. For instance, one leans over the edge to grasp a fishing net while another pulls a rope for the sail. Two of the men have white halos. One stands at the back of the boat looking into the far distance and the other begins to step onto the surface of the water.

This haunting painting illustrates an episode from the Gospel of John. After his Resurrection, Christ appeared to his wonder-struck apostles as they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. The drama of the action and the supernatural nature of Jesus’ appearance after the end of his earthly life were well suited to Tintoretto’s highly individual style. The figure of Christ appears to be almost transparent, decorporalized by the haze of white pigment brushed over his torso with a dry brush. The surface of the water, likewise, is fragmented into waves by strong light. The whole painting seems almost to flicker restlessly, an unsettling sensation that is accentuated by its eerie green color.

Around 1545, the preeminent painter in Venice, Titian, began to work almost exclusively for foreign clients, freeing the many commissions offered by the city’s religious and civic associations for other artists. The removal of Titian’s dominance also opened the way for these younger painters to develop independent styles with more freedom than they had enjoyed before. For Tintoretto, this meant greater drama in his use of color and light—a style that was too extreme to have much influence on younger Venetian artists, but which did impress El Greco during the years he spent in Italy. At one point in its history, this picture, in fact, was thought to have been painted by El Greco.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Italian, 1518 - 1594, Christ at the Sea of Galilee, c. 1575/1580, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.27

7 of 7