Genre Painting in AmericaIf portraiture was the premier "American" art of the early years of this nation's first century, and the American landscape dominated the latter years, then the "bridge" between these two eras belongs to the peculiarly "American" type of painting that has come to be known (sometimes none too kindly) as genre painting. Genre painting was not born in this country by any means. Like many of its citizens, it too was an immigrant--and a very ancient one at that. Elements of this type of painting can be found in European art (Breugel for instance) going back at least two or three hundred years.
Genre painting was the perfect artform for the Jeffersonian, agrarian society that was distinctly American, before the Civil War forced this nation into political maturity and forged it into an industrial giant. Genre paintings of the time were technically adept yet were fairly bursting with homespun humour, excitement, romance, and history. In a very real sense, the paintings of William Sidney Mount, Francis W. Edmonds, and most expressively, George Caleb Bingham, were the very essence of America as this country grew into early adolescence. Today, we are sometimes "embarrassed" by the quaint sentimentality often depicted in these unabashedly "wholesome" works of American art. Perhaps it's not unlike the feeling we have when our mothers drag out the family album to display our baby pictures, years after we've forgotten we were ever so boisterous, young, and innocent.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 November 1997