How to Identify the Different Art Genres

by Diana I

Art Genres

We often use art to be part of our rituals, routines, or ceremonies. It is also an expressive method that lets us document how our days feel.

When we look at the ancient carvings from Stone Age cultures, you’ll see hunting scenes, gathering activities, and fertility rituals are the primary focal point of the work.

Our ancestors wanted to leave behind traces of their existence. Some of them selected cave walls, while others chose to carve figures to the best of their ability.

Another human trait is to classify the things that we see. When we do this in the art world, we put creative expressions into different art genres.

This approach helps us understand the artist’s thoughts and feelings more while appreciating their creative output.

Several different art genres are recognizable throughout human history.

Types of Art genres

1. The Classical Art Genre

Anfiteatro de Pula in Croacia
Anfiteatro de Pula in Croacia By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

This art genre is arguably the most influential in human history.

It is when the Greeks and Romans took the first steps to create what we’d consider a modern society.

As part of that process, they developed numerous artistic approaches that we can still see today.

The foundations of Western art are found in those ancient mosaics, surviving sculptures, and the architecture of the era.

Greek civilization was known for their admiration of human beauty. Their work to create the “Golden Ratio,” or how to apply proportions to the human body, is a technique we still use today.

Romans went for big and bold items, with numerous statues, buildings, and spaces still bearing their influence. We continue to use some of their facilities for modern purposes, such as Pula Arena in Croatia.

These efforts remind us that artwork has lasting power, even centuries after we are gone from this world.

2. The Renaissance Genre

Michelangelo - Creation of Adam
Michelangelo – Creation of Adam

It is remarkable to think about how centralized human civilizations were during the first few AD centuries. With Rome and China dominating most of the conversation, art had minimal time to develop because everyone was essentially doing the same thing.

Once those governments fell apart, the Middle Ages became a place for dogmatic religion and tragic outcomes.

During this time, people focused more on survival than producing art, which is why you find more emphasis on animal development, farming technology, and similar immediate needs during this time.

Having the churches of the era working to squash scientific advancements didn’t help matters much.

What is unique about the Renaissance is that it was the Roman Church’s effort to try to maintain its control. People were getting fed up with the exclusionary nature of salvation, so they started charting a new path forward.

It would begin with efforts to create religious paintings. Still, the Renaissance eventually became a period influenced by Classical art and new techniques that promised a changed perspective through the art world’s creativity.

The Hierarchy of the Renaissance Genre

When we look at the Renaissance period, a ranking system gets employed to see what items have the most desirability and influence. This process even applies to the value of some paintings from the time, although this process is less influential today.

If you were to follow the traditional hierarchy to value the work of Renaissance artists, here is what that process would entail.

  • Historical scenes are always seen as being the most valuable. This category includes Bible stories, allegories, moral conversations, religious motifs, and memories of inspired battles.
  • Portrait paintings come second, including single or group portraits and the Renaissance version of the selfie.
  • Genre paintings from this era capture what everyday life was like during this time in human history. You’ll see marketplaces, streets, and homes in most of this art. Its value was often deemed to be less because it showed realism instead of the talked-up outcomes that didn’t hold as much truth.
  • Landscape paintings held little value in the hierarchy developed for Renaissance works because they were viewed as being empty. The artists who focused on these items would be pleased to know that their popularity has risen exponentially since the 19th century.
  • Still-life paintings of household objects, often in depicted arrangements, held the lowest value for collectors, historians, and museums during this time. This work was often thought of as worthless because it was even emptier than a landscape. At least the natural world had a creator!

Artistic ideas during the Renaissance were useful as a way to evoke powerful human emotions while promoting a “potent” morality that would keep people in line.

That’s why historical scenes and religious imagery are viewable as the ideal examples of what to expect from the Renaissance in its early days. If you had still-life works or a landscape, experts saw it as having little value because it didn’t offer a morality statement.

3. The Dutch Golden Age Genre

The Prodigal Son in the Tavern by Rembrandt
The Prodigal Son in the Tavern by Rembrandt

If you have familiarity with names like Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Rachel Ruysch, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, you know a little bit about this art genre.

The Dutch Golden Age was a time when numerous talented artists, almost all of them from The Netherlands, chose to focus on the materials that the Renaissance found to be almost unacceptable.

That’s why you’ll find maritime paintings, stunning landscapes, still-life works, and genre scenes dominating this artistic era.

To be fair, there was likely a marketing aspect to this decision. Since it is such a hyper-localized approach to art, these artists’ goal was to differentiate themselves from what was happening in Spain and Italy to earn a paycheck.

Another aspect of the Dutch Golden Age involves Reformed Protestantism and Dutch Calvinism. When the Roman Catholics decided that artwork could encourage more people to stick around for religious instruction, these groups went in a different direction.

The Dutch churches outside of Roman Catholic influences forbade having objects or religious paintings as part of the experience.

That meant the artists in the area had to turn to what the wealthy and middle-class families wanted to earn a living. Since most patrons enjoyed landscapes, genre paintings, and the occasional family portrait as decorations, that’s what these artists created.

This approach to art would be the transitory step needed to move from the Renaissance to something we’d consider contemporary or modern. Although the Dutch Golden Age wasn’t filled with hyper-realism, some artists did work to evolve themselves to create images superior to what you’d find with early photographs.

Rembrandt’s work, called “The Wine Glass,” is an excellent example of this evolution. Not only do you have the intricate tile work displayed on the floor in the painting, but there also stands a landscape on the wall behind the two figures.

4. Modern and Contemporary Art Genres

As we moved from the Dutch Golden Age to what we’d call modern art, several sub-genres began developing within the artistic community.

People discovered that they could let their artistic voice speak accurately by pursuing approaches that met their individual needs.

Instead of being forced into a creative box, the contemporary artist could take liberties with any or all of the rules.

Over the past century, the art market continues evolving to embrace what it feels are the best ideas that have come through by brush, paint, or other mediums.

Instead of creating numerous genres, these “movements” have become part of the contemporary genre.

The Traits of the Impressionism Genre

Olympia by Edouard Manet
Olympia by Edouard Manet

This sub-genre started in the late 19th century. Artists in this category capture specific impressions of the outer world and translate them to the canvas. It becomes possible to capture light more accurately with this technique, using visible thin strokes for the paint and coloration.

Manet, Monet, and Renoir are the three primary names associated with this movement, although dozens more provided significant influences in its development.

The Evolution of the Expressionism Genre

Girl with a Mandolin by Pablo Picasso
Girl with a Mandolin by Pablo Picasso

Instead of offering artistic impressions, artists’ goal in this genre is to convey emotions and experiences to the viewer. Anything that fits into that category, including the cubism art from Picasso, qualified as expressionism.

Some artists use geometric shapes, while others focus on anti-establishment visuals to convey specific messages. Many pieces have an anti-war sentiment since the sub-genre started in the late 1910s during the first world war.

It would continue being a dominant force on the contemporary scene until the 1960s, when another set of artistic rebels would start changing the way we perceive art yet again.

The Development of the Pop Art Genre

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol – Credits Moma

Contemporary art from the 1960s involved the pop art movement. This effort aimed to ridicule elitism by showing that people didn’t need to use banal objects or kitsch to create something desirable.

Andy Warhol was one of the most influential artists in this sub-genre. Most artists used bold colors and unlikely scenarios to inspire people to think. Although you can still find people who don’t call this effort “genuine art,” it influenced how future creative minds would perceive the industry.

The Creation of the Land and Earth Art Genres

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson
Spiral Jetty, Utah, 11/95 Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Long-term installation in Rozel Point, Box Elder County, Utah. Collection Dia Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Nancy Holt, 1995.

Instead of using painted materials or manufactured items to produce art, this movement focuses on making large-scale installations using only items offered by Mother Nature. Leaves, rocks, and similar earthworks serve as the guide to create something that appears like it was human-made while still reflecting its overall beauty.

This sub-genre led to the creation of using more natural materials in collages and small-scale projects over the years. It becomes a field for experimentation while perfecting specific processes.

The Departures Offered by the Performance Art Genre

Marina Abramovich and Ulay
Marina Abramovich and Ulay

With this sub-genre of the contemporary scene, art went away from its usual canvas. Instead of focusing on only what the eyes could see, artists experimented with audio cues, scents, and other elements that engaged all of the senses.

Within these pieces, the artist becomes the primary communications focal point. Different actions, often symbolic, become the focus of expression. It could include body movements, facial expressions, poetry, acting, or live painting.

Marina Abramovich is one of the most influential performance artists in this contemporary sub-genre today.

5. Eastern Art Genre

Pastorita by Nicolae_Grigorescu
Pastorita by Nicolae_Grigorescu

What is remarkable about Eastern art is that it is remarkably consistent. Although you’ll find different techniques and variations filtering through society over the years, the elements found in the materials remain as similar today as they did two millennia ago.

Chinese, Indian, and Japanese art all fit into this category, among several other regions and cultures.

The most influential concept to come out of this genre is calligraphy. Before Western cultures received exposure to this subtle art, the idea of fine writing was meant more for transcribing books or creating letters.

Once the rest of the world saw how writing could make a subtle impression on those who see it, the idea of adapting it to the local language became a trend that swept the world.

You’ll find that jade, ceramics, and bronze from this genre are also some of the best ever produced. Ancient items that remain intact are often thought of as priceless relics.

A Final Thought About Art Genres

Art is unique because its beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. A piece that someone feels is brilliant is also one that someone else would find to be laughable.

What we find when looking at the artists of each genre or sub-genre is consistency. Although you’ll find critics everywhere, the consensus for the greatest names in each era is that they produced the best pieces of their time.

Since the art world is continuously evolving and changing, new ideas are worth exploring. This process is how we, as artists, create even more movements to consider.

Each concept creates an innovative approach that lets each artist explore who they are and what they want to communicate with more efficiency.

Art is about innovation.

As will this list at some point in time, people change, and that’s why it is always exciting to see the new ideas that people pursue.

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