Members of the lower classes rarely appeared in Renaissance art. Their entry into visual culture occurred later, around 1580. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a tumultuous affair, fraught with conflicts produced by rapid social change and the spectre of poverty. Sheila McTighe brilliantly examines the emergence of the so-called genre art that constitutes nothing less than the first broad and sustained effort to represent the other half of society. Caravaggio is shown to be a lightning rod for the forces of change. But the main contribution of this book comes through its reconstruction of the contexts in which paintings like Caravaggio's "Fruit Seller" and Annibale Carracci's "Bean Eater" were produced and found an audience.McTighe breaks entirely new ground by relating genre art to the development of a learned consensus that working people were born with coarse, inferior bodies. At the same time, we learn, workers and the poor came to be associated with laziness and deceit in the popular language. These discourses comprise the 'imaginary' circulated in prints and major paintings.
The fact that art historians deem genre art to be a Dutch phenomenon makes this book all the more unorthodox and fascinating.
SHEILA MCTIGHE is senior lecturer at the Courthauld Institute of Art