About Genre and Humor Prints

by George Glazer and Helen Glazer © 2002-2018

Genre, caricature, humorous and satirical prints are historical documents of the social values of the times in which they were made. Genre prints sometimes show how people actually lived at the time, while others depict an idealized view of life that reveal about how people of the era wished to see themselves. Political and social satires serve as records of issues that aroused passions, caused controversy or simply made people laugh. The heyday of both types of prints in England, France and the U.S. was from about 1760 to 1850.

The term "genre" on our site covers a broad range of art, from sentimental to cynical, from melodramatic to mocking. The Library of Congress' Thesaurus of Graphic Materials II defines genre works as, "Scenes or incidents of everyday life, such as domestic interiors or rural and village scenes; tableaux; chiefly pre-1900." These pictures have their roots in Dutch 17th century paintings of daily life and were very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. Genre prints may illustrate a story or poem, although sometimes they are stand-alone works where the narrative aspect is implied.

View our current inventory: Genre and Satire

The Connoisseur shows an art lover dressed in framed pictures.

"The Connoisseur" shows an art lover dressed in framed pictures.

Martin Act Animal Rights Trial Scene

Martin's Act, the first animal-rights law, is satirized in this 1822 print.

On our site, we classify prints as genre prints if they are pre-1900* and fall into one of these categories:

  • Scenes of daily life.
  • Comic scenes enacted by people or animals that comment on human behavior.
  • Moralizing prints by artists such as Hogarth.
  • Allegorical subjects illustrated by people of that period.

The late 18th century in England beginning with the reign of George III was the first great age of cartooning, an explosion of witty and pointed political expression and propaganda. Sometimes the distinction between humorous and genre prints is blurred, as many genre prints incorporate social or political commentary, and a humorous perspective ranging from gently comic to biting satire, often through the use of caricatures.

*Works made after 1900 may be found on our site in Illustration Art.

Some of the most popular genre and humor artists of late 18th and early 19th century England were Thomas Rowlandson, Gillray and H.W. Bunbury, Henry Alken and George Cruikshank. These artists by and large created humorous prints based on scenarios from daily life as well as depicting current events. The British printseller Laurie & Whittle also produced a series of prints illustrating songs performed in London theaters

Dick Dock, or the Lobster & Crab

Laurie & Whittle were prolific publishers of genre prints, many captioned with verses or popular songs.

Series of Miseries

Miseries Domestic from Thomas Rowlandson's popular Miseries of Human Life series, 1808


"Fancy pictures" such as Sylvia by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds reached a wide audience when issued as prints.

The Coquette at Her Toilet

George Morland's portrayal of The Coquette at Her Toilette is representative of his style.

Prints were also made after genre paintings by prominent artists such as George Morland, and after the “fancy pictures” (a combination of portrait and genre picture popular in the 18th century) by painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Angelica Kauffman. Kauffman was one of the few women artists of her era who achieved recognition. Many of her works were based on historical and literary subjects, and translated into genre prints by the finest engravers of the day, including Francesco Bartolozzi and William Ryland.

While some artists engraved or lithographed their own work, most relied on a specialist to translate their original drawings and paintings to the print medium. Stipple engraver Francesco Bartolozzi was much in demand by major British genre artists in the 18th century, notably Angelica Kauffmann, for the superb technique that earned him the nickname "the god of drawing."

In the mid and late 19th century United States, the firms of Currier & Ives and Kellogg were prolific and highly successful producer of genre prints, as lithographs or chromolithographs.

Love and Honour, detail

Bartolozzi's mastery of the stipple engraving technique is displayed in this detail from Henry Bunbury's engraving Love and Honour.

A genre print shows collectors examining an exhibit of works by George Morland, whose work was frequently reproduced in prints.

A genre print shows collectors examining an exhibit of works by George Morland, whose work was frequently reproduced in prints.

William Humphrey's shop window

William Humphrey (c.1740-c.1810) was a London engraver and print seller who supplied many of the greatest collectors of his period. This promotional print shows a crowd of Regency England print collectors admiring the latest selection of prints in his shop window.

Separately Issued Prints, Color Plate Books and Print Rooms

Many satire and genre prints were separately issued by London print publishers and sellers, such as William Humphrey, whose shop was depicted in the print shown here. Others were published in color-plate books, such as Thomas Rowlandson’s illustrations for William Combe’s The Tours of Dr. Syntax series.

Georgian collectors would sometimes paste an eclectic display of their prints right on the walls of so-called “print rooms,” setting them within paper frames glued to the walls. Some of these rooms still survive intact in British and other European country houses. For today’s collector, a group of genre and humor prints are decorative and historically interesting framed and hung as a collection.

A surviving example of an 18th century print room in a Swedish historic house

A surviving example of an 18th century print room in a Swedish historic house, where the print has been glued to the wall and embellished with a hand-painted border.

Fashion Satire, The Grecian Bend: Fifth Avenue Style

Currier and Ives are known for their sentimental and nostalgic subjects but they also produced satirical prints, like this one of a fashion trend for large bustles in 1868.

A genre print shows collectors examining an exhibit of works by George Morland, whose work was frequently reproduced in prints.

A genre print shows collectors examining an exhibit of works by George Morland, whose work was frequently reproduced in prints.

Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman, whose paintings of literary subjects were frequently produced as prints.

Francesco Bartolozzi

Mezzotint engraver Francesco Bartolozzi, considered the pre-eminent stipple engraver of his time.

James Gillray

James Gillray, who almost single-handedly invented the genre of British political caricature.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson, watercolorist, draftsman and engraver, known for gently humorous and lively portrayals of contemporary life.

George Morland

George Morland was among the great Georgian-era genre artists. His paintings were frequently published as prints.

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