Research point: Dutch realist genre paintings

Research the work of the Dutch realist genre painters and choose two or three paintings that particularly appeal to you. Find out what you can about about the artist and their intentions…

Genre painting captures everyday scenes of both high and low life. They usually features figures – but not as portraits or identifiable historical figures. They might, for example,  be single figures, peasant families, tavern scenes or women working at domestic tasks around the home.

Genre painting was extremely popular in Northern Europe in the 17th Century, particularly in the Netherlands. The appeal seems to have been the opportunity to take a sneaky peek at other people’s lives.

For context, genre painting was one of five types of painting established in the 17th Century. The others included history, portrait, landscape and still life with still life being ranked the lowest.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)


The Lacemaker, c. 1669-1671 Oil on canvas 24.5 x 21 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer was a Dutch painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life painted, it is thought, in two small rooms in his house in Deft.. They show the same furniture and decorations in different arrangements and usually portray women. Although he only achieved modest celebrity in his lifetime, his reputation grew  and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

I chose Vermeer’s Lacemaker to look at closely because I remember it hanging on the lounge wall of the house I grew up in (it must have been moved to the Louvre later!).  I never stopped as a child to look at it closely so now I will.

Renoir considered this painting a masterpiece, the most beautiful painting in the world, along with Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, also in the Louvre. A young lacemaker, thought to be a member of the Delft bourgeoisie, is hunched over her bobbins, pins and thread at a sewing table. The theme of the lacemaker represented feminine domestic virtues. The small book in the foreground is probably a bible, giving a hint at morality.

It is a seemingly serene domestic scene of the lacemaker entirely absorbed in her work and oblivious to all else, including the painter.  The soft, slightly speckled light (Vermeer was admired for his mastery of light) contributes to a sense of peace and harmony.

The techniques are interesting – the background is  a blank wall and the foreground objects slightly blurred in order to create a sense of depth and cause the eye to focus directly on the lacemaker herself.

 Jan Steen 1626-1679

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Interior of an Inn (‘The Broken Eggs’), Jan Steen, 1665-70 – The National Gallery London

The Interior of an Inn (‘The Broken Eggs’)


Steen was born at Leiden, where he mainly worked, with periods in Haarlem, Utrecht and The Hague. His father was a brewer and leased a brewery for Steen at Delft (1654-7). In 1672 he was licensed to keep an inn at Leiden.

Steen often included his own portrait in his riotous household and inn scenes. In this tavern scene, he is the man who lifts the woman’s skirt. The painting has several erotic suggestions including the frying-pan handle, the pipe stem and the  broken eggs. Did the artist mean it to be witty or was the painting  a warning about intemperance and immorality? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be one or the other.


The Louvre, Paris:

The Metropolitan Museum, New York:

Tate Online:

The National Gallery, London:


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