The Generation of Realism

In 1845, The art critic, Théophile Thoré (who “discovered” Vermeer) complained that French art was “..without system, without direction, and abandoned to individual fantasy.” According to another critic, Eugène Fromentin, “We revolve in a viscous circle. Public taste in injured; that of the painters is no less; and we vainly seek to know which of the two should seek to elevate the other.  Sometimes we say that the opinion ought to act as the quality of the work and elevate it; and again, according to a new idea, it must be the works themselves that must act upon opinion and convert it by good example.” Echoing the complaints of other observers, the famous Salon artist and Academic teacher, Thomas Couture. stated, “Alas, we have fallen low..Art has become small and commercial.”  The social changes across Europe combined with the lack of purpose within the art world itself appear to have combined to give art a new goal, that of social critic and social revolutionary, as artists began to take notice of the neglected peasant, laborer, and the inherent morality of the “timeless” countryside. This new approach, focusing on “low” subjects was called Realism.

Realism can be broken down into two phases in France.  The first phase was diverse, including the censored and outspoken political cartoonist and painter, Honoré Daumier, the cautious Socialist, Jean François Millet and his careful social landscapes and the radical lesbian Socialist, Rosa Bonheur and her patriotic celebrations of Second Empire prosperity. Realism developed out of Naturalism and became more radical after the Revolution of 1848 with the art of Gustave Courbet. In the beginning, his sympathies were with the petit bourgeoisie, the small town dwellers outside of Paris in  provinces considered provincial by the Parisians. Courbet came from just such an environment, a small town called Ornans, and migrated to the sophisticated urban milieu of Paris where he stressed his “country bumpkin” origins. After a decade of being on the fringes of the closed and rarified world of the Salons, Courbet ushered himself in to history in the unjuried Salon of 1849.  His strategy was to celebrate the everyday world of the inconsequential petit bourgeois, not in small sized genre paintings but in large sized canvases, heretofore reserved for history paintings. In his paintings in 1850, such as the Funeral at Ornans and the Stonebreakers, Courbet asserted the social importance and historical significance of a class that lost the revolutions of the past four decades.

To back up these unconventional subjects, Courbet and his supportive critic, Champfleury, co-wrote their “Realist Manifesto.”  The Manifesto was a statement against Romanticism and idealism, against exoticism and fantasy, and elitist politics.  It was a statement for the ordinary and everyday, for what was apprehensible to the senses alone, even if what was real was unaesthetic to the Salon sensibilities.  For five years, Courbet painted what he preached but in 1854, he redid his manifesto as a painting, titled An Allegory of the Last Seven Years of My Life. That The Artist’s Studio was subtitled as an “allegory,” was a signal that Courbet had abandoned optical realism and was allowing ambiguity, allusion, and symbol to infiltrate his work.  This work is an homage to his success in the art world, a masterful exhibition of egoism, a confounding statement about his political concerns and the beginning of a new phase of his career as an Insider Artist. As the artist acquired more important patrons his subject matter became less confrontational and more conservative, veering often towards pornography. By 1858, Courbet had serious disagreements with early supporters, his patron, Bruyas and his best critic, Champfleury, over his suggestive paintings and patrons in Germany were demanding princely themes, such the hunt, and other pursuits preserved for the wealthy.

Courbet’s political conscience reasserted itself in the aftermath of the Franco- Prussian War in 1870 with his involvement with the short-lived and ill-fated Commune. In the post-war confusion, radical socialists attempted to seize power and bring about some kind of social equality, but the Communards were ultimately defeated by the French government.  Courbet was one of the many sympathizers who were punished after order was restored. He was implicated in the infamous incident of the felling of the Vendôme Column and was made an example of the government’s reassertion of authority. After his downfall, following the failure of the Commune, the politically naïve Courbet spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland, painting for aristocrats, finally abandoning his Realist subject matter for elitist pictures.  Courbet, like David, lived in difficult times that were marked by political changes and, like David, he had to be able to invent and reinvent himself in order to survive, no matter how sincere his democratic principles were.

Whatever Courbet’s intentions towards his patrons and the art public, the socially radical subject matter equated to artistic damage that had been done and the more “advanced” artists were sundered from the public and severed from the Academy.  There was no going back.  The failure of the Revolution caused a cleavage in the French culture as democratic ideals fell victim to the new Emperor Napoléon’s support of finance capital and big industry. Enjoying the high tide of economic prosperity, Courbet’s successor to the mantle of Realism, Edouard Manet, seems to have been able to negotiate the political shoals with more ease, but he encountered trouble in the Academy.   Courbet disturbed the status quo by insisting on elevating the common people to social and moral importance, a rebuke to the middle class for abandoning its own origins (according to the art historian, T. J. Clark). Manet disturbed the powers that be by attempting to update timeless and classic subject matter and, in the process, exposing the emptiness of academic conventions.  Between Courbet and Manet, Realism is divided, in the timeless manner, between the country (Courbet) and the city (Manet).

The Revolution of 1848 allowed Courbet the opportunity to present scenes of country life but the same Revolution also extinguished the hopes of the oppressed and the interests of the culture shifted decisively away from the country to the new and exciting modernism of the city.  When artists return to the country, they do so in the 1880s and paint its sights as tourists and anthropologists, recording the vanishing life of another species–an attitude that would later be called “primitivism,” but which is more aptly thought of as a kind of nostalgia.  The day and time of Courbet was long past and the era of the flâneur, the dandy and the courtesan and the consumer world predicted in the  Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 had come into being. Modernité was a fact of life and the question was–how should the artist react to the moderne?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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