What Can We Learn from Genre Paintings of the Northern Renaissance?

Genre paintings of the Northern Renaissance serve as a window into the past. They can tell viewers a lot about how ordinary people used to live.

Jan 1, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

northern renaissance genre paintings


Genre paintings can be valuable tools when trying to understand the daily lives of ordinary people during the Northern Renaissance. These works can also be used to make observations on societal interactions between people. They can help provide context when studying groups of people that we don’t know much about. Women are part of this group, and genre paintings are an important source for observation concerning their daily lives within society.


Humanism and The Art Market During Northern Renaissance

hans holbein erasmus rotterdam painting
Portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1528, via the Louvre Museum, Paris


Genre paintings are beneficial for understanding the daily lives of people from the past, but why were they so popular? After all, the people commissioning these paintings of ordinary people going about their daily routines were wealthy city-dwellers who likely would have viewed themselves as more important than the lower-class citizens portrayed in these works. There are many answers to this question, but the two most prominent ones are found in humanism and the changing art market.


The Renaissance saw the rebirth of classical values, turning society’s focus away from the afterlife to the living human experience. This brought a rise of appreciation for the humanities. Religion was still heavily crucial to those living in the Renaissance, but the arts flourished extensively. People began to live for the human experience rather than centering their lives around getting into Heaven after death. A famous humanist of the Renaissance was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote about humanist ideas in Latin. In his portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, he is shown in the act of writing, a testament to his scholarship and career.


With humanism, different genres of art became more popular. This could be a reason for genre painting rising in popularity among the wealthy. They wished to see humans going about their daily lives because the human experience was enjoyable to observe.

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hans memling portinari devotional portrait
Tommaso di Folco Portinari & Maria Portinari by Hans Memling, 1470, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Humanism was not the only changing aspect of society in the Renaissance. The art market was changing. Artworks were expensive, and therefore to own art was a sign of wealth. In previous centuries, the principal commissioner of artwork was the Church, but as townspeople and merchants became more wealthy, a new middle class emerged. Portraiture was a common form of artwork commissioned within the widening art market, especially devotional portraiture like the Tommaso di Folco Portinari & Maria Portinari portraits by Hans Memling. These portraits show the commissioners praying, and these paintings would be folded and stored. They would be taken out and opened up for display when visitors called and during prayer so that it was easier for the commissioners to imagine themselves praying to God or the Virgin Mary.


This focus on the image of regular people, rather than on biblical figures, marks a change in what kind of artwork people wanted to see and how it related to the everyday routines in their lives. The crawl toward genre painting continued as the societal landscape changed to fit the new social classes of major cities. Despite the increasing focus on real people in art, these works still seemed staged.


Social Belonging

bruegel elder peasant wedding painting
Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568, via Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a groundbreaking artist. Working in Antwerp and Brussels, he was often commissioned by wealthy merchants to create genre scenes of local peasants going about their daily lives. He would often dress up as a peasant and attend events to observe them in action for his paintings. In Peasant Wedding, we see the bride sitting in the back of the scene, in front of the green cloth that hangs from the wall, marking her important role. On the cloth is a crown made of paper, hung in recognition of the bride’s special day. On either side of her are women who already have their hair covered, indicating their marital status. Young women were required to cover their hair after marriage, according to their religious beliefs, with very special occasions serving as the only exceptions.


The bride seems pleased with her situation, with her hands folded serenely in front of her and a soft smile on her face. It was customary for the bride to not eat or speak before the ceremony and for the bridegroom to only be present for the celebrations during the evening. There are fewer women than men in the painting, and all are seated. They pass jugs, eat from dishes, and order refills in the background. Though weddings are events that both genders attend and enjoy, the only people serving the guests are men.


bruegel elder wedding dance northern renaissance painting
The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566, via the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum


The Wedding Dance is an extension of Peasant Wedding, with the guests listening to music and celebrating outdoors. The dancing is accentuated by the awkward angle of limbs and flowing fabric. The sense of movement is nearly palpable. If we pay attention to how people are dressed, we can tell a great deal about how people lived. These are common, working-class people, and clothing was expensive. They likely would have worn their best clothing to an event like this, so we can assume the clothing they wear in the painting is the best they had.


Despite being in their fanciest clothing, they continue to follow the norms of their social class, such as wearing aprons to protect their nice clothing pieces. The colors are earthy, highlighting their socioeconomic status due to the more affordable, natural dyes they would have had access. Bruegel did not paint these peasants as barren of wealth, however. The woman in the foreground has a visible drawstring coin purse attached to her dress. Men and women both wear similar shoe styles made of dark leather that is wide enough to allow room for the foot to stretch, great for traveling by foot or working. Modesty was an essential aspect of a woman’s wardrobe. No matter the station, modesty was expected from all women.


Despite these moral rules of fashion that women were expected to follow we can see that events like these allowed for plenty of interaction between the sexes. In the background, we can see men and women linking arms. However, women also shared many of the same liberties with men, such as dancing freely at mixed-gender social events, carrying money, gossiping around the table while being served food and drink, and other fun activities like drinking straight from the jug.


Women’s Work in Northern Renaissance

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


It is a common misconception that women in the Renaissance were kept docile and meek in a domestic setting. Many did physical labor alongside men, completing jobs such as harvesting grain or caring for livestock. Women have never been afraid to get dirty in their work, and the Renaissance was no exception. In The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, we can notice a scene where peasants work in a wheat field. However, some are not really working. A group of peasants is seen lounging in the shade beneath a tree, taking a lunch break from their back-breaking work of harvesting wheat manually using scythes. Some are slurping bowls of porridge. Some cut slices of cheese to go with their bread.


A man is portrayed taking a short nap under the shade. The women are right there with the men, wearing hats to keep the sun off their skin, allowing for a lighter complexion that was more desirable among the upper class and obviously challenging for lower-class women to achieve. In the background, we can see a woman bending over the grain, picking up the sheath to tie into stacks like on the right side of the painting. In the far back, there is fruit on the ground that people can pick up. There is a large field full of wheat that is still left to harvest. Three women are portrayed on their way through, hauling the wheat on their backs in the hot sun.


Clothing in the summer would have been breathable and cool to keep the wearer comfortable in the heat. Despite the hard work, the workers here kept their sleeves rolled down. There two reasons for this: modesty and to block the sun.


bueckelaer fish market northern renaissance painting
Fish Market by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1568, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


With religious reformation sweeping Europe in the 16th century, the art market turned away from religious scenes and towards scenes of everyday life. At last, people could see themselves in artworks and celebrate different aspects of society. In Joachim Beuckelaer’s painting we can see an everyday scene at a fish market. The fish market was predominantly occupied by female customers, waiting in line with their baskets so that they could purchase fish to create meals for their families. It is no secret that women were expected to do the cooking in the Renaissance. Every day, working-class women would have been expected to feed the family. This included acquiring the ingredients, preparing them, cooking them into dishes, and serving their families at home.


Peasant Parlor with Noble Visitors by Marten van Cleve can show us the differences between classes and how that affected the situational landscape of women’s experiences. A noble couple is seen giving a nursemaid that’s holding a baby some fruit and something to drink. Two women seem to be experiencing sexual harrasment. One woman is portrayed kneeling by the fire while a man reaches around to embrace her from behind. Another woman attempts to serve the people at the table while a nobleman reaches for her breast. She looks as if she is pushing his arm down to in order to prevent this from happening.


marten van cleve peasant parlor painting
Peasant Parlor with Noble Visitors by Marten van Cleve, 1566, via Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The women are also the primary caretakers in this scene, taking care of the children by holding and feeding them as the men enjoy their food and drink. There is only one example of a man in the scene caring for a child seen in the man in the foreground who is seen potty training a small child. He lifts the child clumsily by its clothing, perhaps believing that he should not be the one to complete the job of assisting the child. We can see the more typical gender roles of the Renaissance in this painting from the perspective of both men and women. The men seem to exist in this space to be served, while the women are the ones who are caring for others. These were the more typical gender roles of the Renaissance.


Women played many roles during Renaissance. Though they are often swept under the rug when it comes to history. This does not change the fact that women were always present in history and that they had important roles that shaped the future and therefore changed the landscape of art. Women played the typical roles of caregivers, wives, and mothers, but they also played other roles. They were party-goers, market customers, and field workers. Women were essential to the economy, working jobs and helping with the harvest that would feed the local population. Women were therefore an integral part of the Renaissance society in many aspects.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.