One of the secrets to being fluent in English is being able to talk about a wide variety of topics in unpredictable situations. It’s good to know phrases for restaurants and the post office, but if you want to take your English to the next level, you need to learn how to talk about all sorts of topics! Today, we’re going to focus on a few English words for talking about paintings.




There are lots of ways to talk about paintings. We can talk about color, texture, the subject matter, the historical context, etc. One way we talk about paintings is to talk about genre.


A genre is a particular type or style of art, literature, film, or music that you can recognize because of its special features.


For example, one popular film genre is horror. How can you identify this genre? Do horror movies usually have a happy ending? Do they make you laugh? Of course not! Rather, a horror movie usually has an unhappy ending, and the movie might make you scream. Identifying the genre of a painting is similar to identifying the genre of a film. What features does the painting have?


English vocabulary for painting genres


Although modern art has given us a wealth of new genres, today you’ll learn English vocabulary words for five traditional genres of paintings. These are genres that have been recognized for hundreds of years.


Can you think of an example of each type of painting? At the end, test yourself with our quiz!


1. History Painting


A history painting shows a scene from a well-known story. Traditionally, history paintings showed scenes from mythology or religious texts, like the Iliad or the Bible. History paintings are often painted on large canvases and usually depict multiple people.


Related: Have you ever wondered where Christmas trees came from? Learn about it here!


2. Portrait


A portrait is a painting of a person, often of their head and shoulders. Unlike a history painting, the person in a portrait is not participating in a particular story.


Oftentimes, the currency for a country will feature a portrait of a famous person from that country. For example, the $1 bill in the United States features a portrait of George Washington.


example of a portrait

3. Genre Painting


A genre painting shows scenes from everyday life, such as people dancing in a tavern or a woman sewing by the window. A modern genre painting might show a family playing in the sprinkler on a hot summer day.


4. Landscape / Seascape / Cityscape


A landscape is a painting that shows a view of the countryside. A landscape might show towering mountains or rolling hills. It might show a lake, or a canyon, or a forest.


A seascape is a painting that shows a view of the sea. Some seascapes show a peaceful view of the ocean, and others show high waves and storm clouds overhead.


A cityscape is a painting that shows a view of a city or urban area. A cityscape might show skyscrapers, or city lights reflecting off the wet pavement, or a row of merchants shouting to passers-by.


In all of these, the focus of the painting is the place itself and not any specific event or person.


Related: If you like seascapes, you’ll LOVE these 9 nautical idioms!


5. Still Life


A still life is a painting of arrangements of objects, such as fruits or flowers. Oftentimes, the objects in a still life are symbolic. For example, a skull might symbolize mortality, or certain types of fruit might symbolize sexual desire.



Do you think you’ve mastered these new vocabulary words?

Take this quiz and see how you do!

What is your favorite genre of painting?

Tell us in the comments!


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