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Art History Reader: Realism

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When people talk about “realism” in art, they are typically referring to one of two things: the life-life depiction of reality, or the movement that began in mid-19th century France that rejected Romanticism in favor of contemporary subject matter. They are not quite interchangeable. The artists of the Realist movement did not always paint things “realistically” as their primary goal was not to portray objects exactly as they appear in real life. While this kind of realism (also called “illusionism” or “naturalism”) can be glimpsed in some Realist paintings, what defined the Realist artists was their approach to subject matter. Pragmatic and progressive, the Realists painted the world around them, not an idealized version of how the world should be, but real people going about their lives.            

 

The course of art history often feels like a pendulum swinging back and forth, with each movement spurring a reaction that becomes the next movement, and so on. The Realist movement was a reaction against the idealization and escapism of Romanticism and Neoclassicism. Grand history paintings of ancient leaders and lounging goddesses no longer felt relevant in a Europe that was speeding toward Modernity at the rate of, well, a train speeding across the countryside. Railways, factories, urban modernization, consumerism, the rise of the Metropolitan middle classes, the vanishing rural peasants--to the Realists, the present moment was interesting enough, thank you very much. In fact, this is why Realism is typically hailed as the very first “modern” art movement--because it championed everyday life and the contemporary world as worthy subject matter for art.  

 

Realism was made possible by an intellectual movement called Positivism. It was popularized by the French thinker Alexander Comte, who argued that society, like the physical universe, followed certain laws, and that social progress could be achieved by analyzing empirical evidence through a scientific lens and applying the findings to human civilization. His work led to the development of the science of sociology. With so many changes affecting 19th-century life, positivism offered a practical way to take on the Brave New World marked by industry and urbanization. And it made contemporary life worthy of study, a source of valuable information for understanding and improving human existence. 

 

Realism first gained footing in France, where it became the first art movement to specifically rebel against the accepted teachings at the Academy. Gustave Courbet was at the forefront of the movement, and he courted scandal like only an artist can. At the Paris Salon of 1850-51, the young artist exhibited paintings depicting the people of his native Ornans. What made them so shocking, however, was that he depicted these everyday folk (looking decidedly un-idealized) on huge canvases, a monumental scale that had typically been reserved for history painting. His painting The Burial at Ornans is so large that it feels like you yourself are attending the funeral. It may seem funny that a solemn funeral, or even a meeting of friends on a road (like in the image above), was not considered a valid subject matter for a painting, but for people at the time, art was reserved for something more special than the mundane. Art was meant to express high ideals. Coming during the conservative backlash following the collapse of the 1848 revolutionary government, Courbet’s artwork was basically equated with anarchy.

 

When Courbet’s monumental works were rejected by the Universal Exposition of 1855, he withdrew all of his paintings and decided to have his own exhibition. The introduction to the catalogue of his show, in which he laid out the principles guiding his work, has since become known as the “Realist Manifesto.” He sums up his objectives by saying, “To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art--this is my goal.” A number of other artists came to share that goal, similarly capturing life around them without embellishment. Millet, for instance, drew attention to the lives of peasants, while Daumier, when he wasn’t making caricatures of the privileged classes, focused on the urban poor.


In the United States, artists like Winslow Homer, who had seen Realist paintings in France, also painted scenes of everyday American life. The cataclysm of the American Civil War left people hungering for simple images of rural life, and while some critics found Homer’s work to be too sentimental, his iconic scenes spoke to America’s evolving self-image amid reconstruction, industrialization, and Westward expansion. Similarly, Thomas Eakins documented American life and its issues, but he did so with the eye of a scientist. He painted images of surgeons at their work, and even emphasized the importance of studying anatomy from live models and not plaster casts. These realist artists captured American activity, but also placed special focus on nature and physicality. 

 

Realism had a large impact on art over the following centuries. It paved the way for its immediate successors, the Impressionists, to make everyday life in Paris (however leisurely) their subject matter, and in the next generation, it’s influence can be discerned in the peasant paintings of van Gogh. In the United States the movement lasted longer, as can be seen in Edward Hopper’s lonesome visions of mid-century America and Norman Rockwell’s far cheerier ones. Today we are rarely shocked by images of everyday life, yet photo-realists like Chuck Close continue to surprise us by playing with scale to create massive, un-idealized images of average-looking people and things.

 

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For additional information about this movement, see Sartle School of Art History: Realism.



This reader is part of a larger series of introductory texts about art and art history. Each has been written under the direction of Rick Love. This reader was co-authored by Jeannette Sturman.

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Rick Love

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