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, Courbet’s sympathies were with the petit bourgeoisie, the small town dwellers outside of Paris in regions 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. His huge and dark painting An After Dinner at Ornans (1849), depicting his father and other inhabitants of the small town enjoying an evening in a modest inn. Judged by his colleagues and his peers, Courbet won a medal for the Rembrantian work that challenged expectations, not by its humble subject matter, but by its heroic size. In the French Academy, size mattered, and the large scale paintings or the grandes machines were reserved for significant content, preferably from ancient life. Courbet who had become a clever operator in his decade in Paris would return to his origins in Franche-Comté, where he produced a series of large paintings that forced the French Academy to confront Realism. 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. As Courbet scholar, Michael Fried noted, these paintings marked “his emergence both as a major painter and as a disruptive force in French cultural life.”

To back up these unconventional subjects, Courbet and his supportive critic, Champfleury (Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson), co-wrote their “Realist Manifesto” for the occasion of the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris. Frozen out of the official exhibition which had refused to accept his older painting, Burial at Ornans and his more recent work, The Artist’s Studio, Courbet once again made a daring move, stoking out against the establishment that still fought off Realism. He mounted his own exhibitor, in what he called “a tent” but what was actually rectangular pavilion. Here he showed forty of his works, an array of mid century realism, accompanied by a pamphlet that explained his philosophy to the public. The brochure was titled “Exhibition et venue 40 Tableaux et 4 dessins de l’oeuvre de M. Gustave Courbet…”  The title explained the two provocations presented by Courbet: first single person shows were rare and usually reserved for the recently deceased and second, Courbet was openly announcing that his work was for “sale,” proclaiming the commercialism—heretofore hidden or denied—of the art world. 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.

Courbet’s Realist Pavilion 1855

Realist artists, such as Gustave Courbet, found it unethical to depict that which did not exist, giving Realism a moral dimension. In 1855, Courbet set up his own Pavilion of Realism and issued his “Realist Manifesto,” which stated that he was rejecting the acts of copying and imitation, on one hand, and, at the other extreme, art-for-art’s-sake. The Manifesto sold for 10 centimes and stated, “The title of Realist was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary. Without expanding on the greater or lesser accuracy of a name which nobody, I should hope, can really be expected to understand, I will limit myself to a few words of elucidation in order to cut short the misunderstandings. I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of “art for art’s sake.” No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, 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.”

Later in 1861, Courbet wrote a letter addressed to those who wanted to be his students. The artist refused to be a teacher and wrote, providing an explanation and some advice, “I cannot teach my art, nor the art of any school whatever, since I deny that art can be taught, or, in other words, I maintain that art is completely individual, and is, for each artist, nothing but the talent issuing from his own inspiration and his own studies of tradition. I say in addition that, in my opinion, for an artist art or talent can only be a way of applying his own personal abilities to the ideas and objects of the time in which he lives.” He continued, explaining his position as a Realist artist: “The history of an era is finished with that era itself and with those of its representatives who have expressed it. It is not the task of modern times to add anything to the expression of former times to ennoble or embellish the past. What has been, has been. The human spirit must always begin work afresh in the present, starting off from acquired results. One must never start out from foregone conclusions proceeding from synthesis to synthesis, from conclusion to conclusion. The real artists are those who pick up their age exactly at the point to which it has been carried by preceding times. To go backward is to do nothing; it is pure loss; it means that one has neither understood nor profited by the lessons of the past. This explains why the archaic schools of all kinds are brought down to the most barren compilations. I maintain, in addition, that painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects; an object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting. Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating that thing itself. The beautiful exists in nature and may be encountered in the midst of reality under the most diverse aspects. As soon as it is found there, it belongs to art, or rather, to the artist who knows how to see it there. As soon as beauty is real and visible, it has its artistic expression from these very qualities. Artifice has no right to amplify this expression; by meddling with it, one only runs the risk of perverting and, consequently, of weakening it. The beauty provided by nature is superior to all the inventions of the artist. Beauty, like truth, is a thing which is relative to the time in which one lives and to the individual capable of understanding it. The expression of the beautiful bears a precise relation to the power of perception acquired by the artist.”

In the intervening years between 1855 and the mid 1860s, 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.

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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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