Genre works, also called genre scenes or genre views, are pictorial representations in any of various media that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Such representations may be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Some variations of the term genre works specify the medium or type of visual work, as in genre painting, genre prints, genre photographs, and so on.
Genre themes appear in nearly all art traditions. Painted decorations in ancient Egyptian tombs often depict banquets, recreation, and agrarian scenes, and even medieval prayer books such as the Book of Hours (see Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc De Berry) are decorated with "peasant" scenes of daily life. The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder made peasants and their activities the subject of many of his paintings, and genre painting was to flourish in Northern Europe in Brueghel's wake. Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, David Teniers, Aelbert Cuyp, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter De Hooch were among the many painters specializing in genre subjects in the Netherlands during the 17th century. The generally small scale of these artists' paintings was appropriate for their display in the homes of middle class purchasers.
In Italy, a "school" of genre painting was stimulated by the arrival in Rome of the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer in 1625. He acquired the nickname "Il Bamboccio" and his followers were called the Bamboccianti, whose works would inspire Giacomo Ceruti, Antonio Cifrondi, and Giuseppe Maria Crespi among many others.
Louis le Nain was an important exponent of genre painting in 17th century France, where the 18th century would bring a heightened interest in the depiction of everyday life, whether through the romanticized paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, or the careful realism of Chardin.
In England, William Hogarth conveyed social criticism and moral lessons through canvases that told stories of ordinary people, often in serial form. William Powell Frith is perhaps the most famous English genre painter and was admired by many of his contemporaries. Other English genre painters include Augustus Leopold Egg, George Elgar Hicks, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and David Wilkie.
The first true genre painter in the United States was German immigrant John Lewis Krimmel, who learning from Wilkie and Hogarth, produced gently humorous scenes of life in Philadelphia from 1812-1821.
With the decline of religious and historical painting in the 19th century, artists increasingly found their subject matter in the life around them. Realists such as Gustave Courbet upset expectations by depicting everyday scenes in huge paintings—at the scale traditionally reserved for "important" subjects—thus blurring the boundary which had set genre painting apart as a "minor" category. History painting itself shifted from the exclusive depiction of events of great public importance to the depiction of genre scenes in historical times, both the private moments of great figures, and the everyday life of ordinary people. Subsequently the Impressionists, as well as such 20th century artists as Pierre Bonnard, Edward Hopper, and David Park painted scenes of daily life, but in the context of modern art the term "genre painting" has come to be associated mainly with painting of an especially anecdotal or sentimental nature, painted in a traditionally realistic technique. The works of American painter Ernie Barnes and those of illustrator Norman Rockwell could exemplify a more modern type of genre painting.
While genre painting began, in the 17th century, with representations by Europeans of European life, the invention and early development of photography coincided with the most expansive and aggressive era of European imperialism, in the mid-to-late 19th century, and so genre photographs, typically made in the proximity of military, scientific and commercial expeditions, often also depict the people of other cultures that Europeans encountered throughout the world.
Although the distinctions are not clear, genre works should be distinguished from ethnographic studies, which are pictorial representations resulting from direct observation and descriptive study of the culture and way of life of particular societies, and which constitute one class of products of such disciplines as anthropology and the behavioural sciences.