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Types of Content

Pictures can be categorised according to their content. Particular styles of painting have been called after the content of the pictures of a period. Overall, there are four main categories of representation: the landscape, the human figure, the still life and historic narrative. Themes of the human figure include portraiture and the nude; historic narrative includes allegories. Hereafter is a short overview of the contents that are most commonly expected in paintings.

Devotional themes:

During the Middle Ages devotional content, that is content representing scenes from the Bible, from the Old and New Testament, was with portraiture almost the only content of painters. Society was pervaded and ruled by Christianism in Europe, and stories of the Bible were so well known that the subjects of Christian religion were the most rewarding for painters and viewers. Such scenes were readily understood by even the less literate viewers. Until the seventeenth century, scenes from the Old Testament were rare, except maybe scenes from the life of Joseph the Egyptian, in which parallels with the Passion and life of Christ could be drawn. With the advent of Protestantism, also scenes from the Old Testament became more popular. Devotional themes declined from the Enlightenment on, but especially from the beginning of the nineteenth century by the de-Christianising of European society. Some of the pictures contained many stories in one painting, so that they could be called "narrative" pictures. This is the case for instance for many scenes of the life of Jesus, of pictures like of the theme of the "Seven Sorrows of the Virgin", of scenes from Genesis, of the lives of Moses and Joseph the Egyptian.

Scenes from classical antiquity and mythology:

During all centuries, and also in the twentieth century, themes from classic antiquity and classic myths remained popular. Classic scenes are especially of the Greek gods of the Olympus. Also, painters amply used the themes from the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epic poems of Homer, themes from the writings of Virgil, or the voyages of Jason. The best well-known and most frequently painted classic theme must be the theme of Venus. Venus allowed studies of the formal anatomy of women, appealed to sensual feelings in the men who always were the first buyers of pictures, and by this classic theme offered a socially acceptable excuse for buying pictures of female nudity. In the twentieth century Surrealistic or Meta-Physical painters such as Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico took up classic themes once more.


Portraiture was always a popular kind of painting, especially at times of history before photography. But even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, portrait painting remained in fashion. Early portraits show only the faces of the models, either in profile or in front. Later, other positions could be used. One of the main portrait painters, who defied any tradition in the art, was Tiziano. But also Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael made remarkable portraits. Portraiture was the most popular kind of art in painting in the United Kingdom in the first centuries of its art.

Realistic scenes:

Realism was a kind of painting that existed through all centuries. Nevertheless, mainly painters of the nineteenth century French school of Barbizon and the Dutch school of The Hague depicted landscapes or intimate scenes of nature in a realistic way. In these scenes common people at work were often shown so that the pictures have also a social undertone.

Genre themes:

By genre painting one defines generally scenes of everyday life or of contemporary scenes of towns or of the interiors of churches or of rooms. Genre painting became very popular in the seventeenth century with Dutch painters. A particular genre is the Dutch moralising pictures, which are often of brothel or of vulgar scenes, translated in the finest visual narrative representations.

Still lives:

Still lives, in French denoted by the term "Nature Morte", are paintings of flowers, of arrangements of flowers, of fruit, of fish or meat, of fowl, or in very general of everyday objects. Still lives were throughout the centuries good subjects for exercises of painters, until still lives became a prized content for collectors and for the decoration of rooms.


Landscape scenes were used in the Middle Ages as background of portraits or of devotional pictures. Two Walloon (Belgian) painters, Joachim Patinir and Henri Blès, used landscape for its own sake in pictures, and thus started this particular kind of painting. Landscape or seascape or cityscape painting remained a preferred way for Northern, that is Flemish, Dutch, German and Scandinavian artists.


Dutch society and its wealth in the seventeenth century were based on overseas trade. The merchants and the military wanted pictures that represented their wealth and glory. Many Dutch landscape painters also painted scenes of ships at sea and of sea battles. Soon, marine pictures became a kind of painting on itself. The genre remained popular in the naval headquarters of the European powers, in France, England and the Scandinavian countries. French famous painters of landscapes such as Claude le Lorrain and Joseph Vernet established the art in France.

Historical themes:

Historical scenes were painted also all through the history of the visual arts. Paolo Uccello painted the "Battle of San Romano" for instance in the fifteenth century. Historical painting really became popular in the nineteenth century, during the Romantic Movement.

Illusionistic themes:

Painters experimented more and more with the subject matter. Painters represented figures with faces like ancient helmets, as Giorgio de Chirico did. They showed figures in imaginary settings, not associated with real natural environments. Various objects that were never seen together in nature could be joined on a canvas, such as did the Surrealists.
René Magritte made a train locomotive come out of the open hearth of a room. He painted a horse running on top of a car, or a huge stone with a medieval castle on top, hanging above a sea. These were new images, but some such settings had been used before to surprise and interest the viewer. Jan van Eyck painted his figures in the "Arnolfini Marriage" in too small a room and he added the phrase "Van Eyck has been here" in the centre of his picture. Van Eyck also put several objects as obscure symbols in his picture to capture the interest of viewers, an effect that also the Metaphysical painters like de Chirico or the Surrealists like Magritte were after.

The nude

Painters took the human figure as subject and admired the body of male and female figures. The male nude was often represented in Saint Sebastian and in Apollo; the female nude was Venus or Aphrodite. Painters sought eagerly themes that allowed them to show nudes, and they compared their skills at depicting the human body.

Erotic and Pornographic Themes:

Many genre and classic themes, but also portraits, can be handled in a very erotic way by painters and have been produced to that intent. A major example, which is nevertheless the pride of its museum, is Francisco de Goya’s "Maja Desnuda". Goya made a picture of the Maja dressed and undressed.
Pictures of Venus, of Danae, of Diana and of other classic mythical heroines or goddesses often were but an excuse for overt eroticism. This genre was particularly popular in the Rococo period of France’s eighteenth century. In this period of King Louis XVI, female nudity was added to frivolity.
Openly pornographic paintings have reached far less popularity, obviously because these pictures could only address a particular public. Yet the genre exists, and seems to become more applied in contemporary art as some painters attack all taboos of society in an urge to attract interest by all means, even be it voyeurism interest.

Moral Content

The question of whether the content of pictures should be moral or not has heavily been debated over the centuries.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) had one opinion. He wrote, "Art should refine our sense of character and conduct, of justice and sympathy, greatly heightening our self-knowledge, self-control, precision of action, and considerateness, and making us intolerant of baseness, cruelty, injustice and intellectual superficiality or vulgarity. The worthy artist or craftsman is he who serves the physical and moral senses by feeding them with pictures, musical compositions, pleasant house and gardens, fiction, essays and drama which call the heightened senses and enabled faculties into pleasurable activity" G87 .
But Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had another view as he expressed, "L’art pour l’art. The fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralising tendency in art, against its subordination to morality. L’art pour l’art means, "the devil takes morality" G87 ."
These contradictory views are still very at the order of the day, as in contemporary Post-Modern art a class of painters deliberately address our society’s last taboos of sexuality in very provocative pictures. Every viewer must take his or her stand. We will generally prefer Shaw’s position in these lessons.

To some degree, works of art have a moral effect on viewers. To just what degree that is, remains matter of debate. Morally tuned people will rapidly turn away from corrupt works made by corrupt minds, whereas morally un-tuned viewers will remain attracted to such art. The viewer’s attitude is already in the viewer before he or she seeks the work of art. The definition of what is moral art, up to what limit it goes, is not so easy to define, and changes with time and culture. Corrupt art does not necessarily corrupt, nor is it certain that "good" art improves the morality of the viewer. Whether corrupt art needs to be censored is also not an easy question. Censorship restricts freedom in a society. Censorship restricts artists from being creative, and we may find it more valuable to protect the artists’ freedom than to guarantee protection from "bad" influences. Freedom of creation and of expression is extremely valuable for a society, whereas the effects of art on moral attitudes of a society are not very well demonstrated conclusively.

The viewing of paintings is not a social act. It is a very individual act. Morality is about our attitude, our relationships with others. To the extent that paintings are communication however, there is also a social aspect in them, and an aspect of relationships. The experience of paintings does not help much in "bettering" our relations with our fellow-men, even though we may be touched by certain scenes that show the misery of other people.
The contemplation of certain pictures may thus be an invitation to act socially, but pictures that incite viewers to start acting towards charity or heighten moral attitudes are rather seldom. Paintings do make viewers understand better how others might feel, and thus help moral attitude. But this effect remains very relative. It gives insight into others, and that is always moral attitude.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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