A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXI
GENRE PAINTING

In the English school, genre pictures may be said to take their rise from Hogarth, whose works were of cabinet size, and of a dramatic rather than historic tendency. After his death, although small pictures were occasionally painted by Johann Zoffany, William Hamilton, William Peters, and others, yet the general efforts of our figure painters, stimulated by the example of James Barry, Benjamin West, and J. S. Copley, were for a time directed to works of the scale of life, and to subjects of a religious or historic character, rather than to those domestic and familiar incidents from home life and the affections which in France have obtained the name of Tableaux de Genre, and which we, from want of a better, have hitherto consented to call by the same name. It was, however, soon apparent that our countrymen cared little for battle pieces; nor were they desirous of seeing the sacred subjects of their creed surrounding them in their everyday life. In England the churches are not open to the painter's art, and the burgesses and aldermen of our provincial towns were little likely to forgo the pleasures of the table at the guild and corporation feasts, that the walls of the guild-halls might be decorated at the expense of their good cheer. Hence the zeal for producing works of heroic size could not be expected to endure, since, even were he disposed to forgo the due reward of his labours, the artist could find no place to display them. It was soon found that pictures to suit the English taste must be pictures to live by; pictures to hang on the walls of that home in which the Englishman spends more of his time than do the men of other nations, and loves to see cheerful and decorative. His rooms are comparatively small, and he cannot spare much wallspace for a single picture. His eye, too, must be pleased before his mind, and colour is to him one of the first sources of gratification.

No doubt our school suffered somewhat by this change from heroic and religious to familiar art--suffered in the grandeur of its attempts at least, more especially in the estimation of Continental nations--and really suffered by adopting too generally subjects of a somewhat tame and familiar class, to the exclusion of the ideal and the poetical. It gained, however, in care, in refinement of execution, in attention to the completion of the parts and in the perfection of the

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