The Hierarchy of Genres

Back in the heyday of the Academy system, artists used to have an official list detailing which types of paintings were more important than others.

01
of 06

History Painting

Image © National Gallery, London; used with permission
Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503-1572). An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, ca. 1545. Oil on wood. 146.1 x 116.2 cm (57 1/2 x 45 3/4 in.). Purchased 1860. NG651. National Gallery, London. Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503-1572). An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, ca. 1545.

History Painting was ranked number one (with a bullet), because it represented the culmination of all skills learned within the academy system. The paintings themselves were large, and intended for display in public places such as churches, spacious rooms or gallery walls. On a strategic, marketing level, they were also intended to dwarf other pieces at the annual Salons.

Subject matter dealt with classical, mythological, literary and religious events throughout history. The highest designation went to allegorical paintings, which carried symbolic messages about good and evil.

It must be noted that only in History Painting were nudes permissible, often in the form of mythological beings. And even these seldom went full frontal. Rather, genitalia were usually covered with some form of artistic drapery, or women (in particular) presented back or side views.
02
of 06

Portraiture

© 2008 Smithsonian Institution, Courtesy, National Portrait Gallery; used with permission
Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828). George Washington (the Lansdowne portrait), 1796. Oil on canvas. 97 1/2 x 62 1/2 in. (247.6 x 158.7 cm). Acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828). George Washington (the Lansdowne portrait), 1796.

Portraiture, also known as "portrait painting," was the second highest genre in the academic hierarchy. Academy students underwent a rigorous course of instruction to master this skill, spending years first drawing from from plaster casts (à la bosse), and then copying established artists' portraits before finally working with live models.

Although many artists made a steady living doing small-scale portraiture, the most lucrative commissions were for large, full-length portraits--often done in the Grand Manner (also known as the "swagger painting," a classical pose designed to show the sitter to best advantage as heroic, noble or both.) Sitters may or may not have been attired in Grecian or Roman robes, but all were fashionably dressed.
03
of 06

Genre Painting

© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; used with permission
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675). The Milkmaid, ca. 1658. Oil on canvas. 17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (45.5 x 41 cm). SK-A-2344. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675). The Milkmaid, ca. 1658.

Somewhat ironically, given that this is a list of the Hierarchy of Genres, genre painting weighs in at number three.

Simply put, genre paintings were scenes from everyday life. They contained people, animals, touches of still lifes, bits of landscape (although interior scenes were more common) or any combination thereof. They were admired for the skills artists employed and were occasionally (possibly unintentionally) humorous, but they didn't command the respect that History Painting or Portraiture did.
04
of 06

Landscape Painting

© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; used with permission
Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/29-1682). Landscape with a Mill-run and Ruins, ca. 1653. Oil on canvas. 59.3 x 66.1 cm (23 5/16 x 26 in.). Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/29-1682). Landscape with a Mill-run and Ruins, ca. 1653.

Landscape Painting is ranked fourth in the Hierarchy of Genres. While lovely to look at, landscapes require no human figures and somewhat less technical ability to produce than do the first three genres on the list.

"Landscape" in this context does not strictly mean wide-open vistas or mountain ranges. Types of Landscape Paintings also include cityscapes, seascapes and waterscapes ... basically anything that is found in physical geography.

Incidentally, most landscapes are painted in a horizontal format, meaning the length of the canvas is greater than its height. If you've ever wondered why your computer's printer has both "portrait" (height greater than width) and "landscape" (vice-versa) settings, there is your answer.
05
of 06

Animal Painting

The Royal Collection © 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; used with permission
George Stubbs (English, 1724-1806). The Prince of Wales's Phaeton, 1793. Oil on canvas. 102.2 x 128.3 cm (40 3/16 x 50 1/2 in.). Painted for George IV. George Stubbs (English, 1724-1806). The Prince of Wales's Phaeton, 1793.

At some point during Academic Art's heyday--probably roughly around the time that George Stubbs' (English, 1724-1806) horse paintings became wildly popular--it became necessary to add a new genre to the Hierarchy: Animal Painting.

Why is Animal Painting ranked so far down the scale? There are two possibilities here. The first may have to do with its late inclusion in the Hierarchy of Genres. The second, and more likely, is that while this was portraiture, it wasn't Portraiture-portraiture. In other words, it failed to meet the call for portraits to be of "God's finest creation," the human being.

However, it would be a mistake to think that Animal Painters weren't admired, valued and made fantastic commissions. The patrons who eagerly sought their services were royal, noble and incredibly wealthy. What better way to tout one's ownership of a thoroughbred racehorse or prized bull than by showing off a portrait?
06
of 06

Still Lifes

Image © Dahesh Museum of Art; used with permission
Blaise-Alexandre Desgoffe (French 1830-1901). Still Life with Fruit, Glass of Wine, 1863. Oil on panel. 21 1/4 x 24 in. (54 x 61 cm). 1996.3. Dahesh Museum of Art. Blaise-Alexandre Desgoffe (French 1830-1901). Still Life with Fruit, Glass of Wine, 1863.

Last in the Hierarchy of Genres we find Still Lifes.

All Still Lifes contain no living objects, and most are small-scale paintings. Though technically sound, they require the least amount of expertise because everything in the composition is inanimate (read: easier to record and requiring no stretch of the imagination on the artists' part).

On the bright side, lots of people could afford Still Lifes. On the downside, the commissions artists made from these paintings were directly commensurate with its lowly ranking on the Hierarchy of Genres.