Realism in England, France, and America

At the end of the Napoléonic wars, the French were able to take a good hard look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution, going full speed ahead in Britain.  Appalled at the misery of the lower classes, the industrial smog of London, and the blighting effects of technology, the French made the decision to approach modernism with caution.  Although the British worker was actually better off than the French worker, and English people were more educated and more productive than the French, the costs were too high.

In contrast to England, where the nation transformed itself from a rural to an urban society and from an agrarian to an industrial country, France slowed down industrialization.  According to That Sweet Enemy. Britain and France: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship by Robert and Isabelle Tombs, by 1840 England’s industries had overtaken agriculture in prominence, but until 1950 the rural way of life predominated in France.  As the result of its economic policies, France was spared the industrial pollution that made life in England a dark and shrouded nightmare.  The contrasting economies of the two nations also explain the difference in artistic content between the English and French Realist artists.

Most artists and writers were middle class and were financially secure enough to criticize the prevailing establishment by depicting their own age. They wrote and painted from a position of protected privilege.  The lower classes did not represent themselves; they were represented in terms of the attitudes and needs of the dominant class.  For example, in France, Georges Sand, the novelist, and Jean-Françoise Millet, the painter, both from wealthy or well-to-do backgrounds, concentrated on peasant life.

Meanwhile, in England, John Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, turned their attention to “modern problems,” or life in an urban culture.  The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly painting from a position of social privilege but their content was frequently urban, reflecting the realities of life in London at mid-century.  The French artists concentrated to rural subjects for several reasons.  First, peasants still existed in large numbers in that nation and rural life was a significant factor in French culture.   Second, modernization, as moderate as it was in France, set off waves of nostalgia about the supposedly untouched agricultural sectors.

In France, however, depicting peasants, however benignly, was rife with risk for an artist.  Outside of Paris, the lower classes were resistant to the new forms of government following the revolution, with the “White Terror” of the Vendée revolts in the countryside continuing into the Twentieth Century.  By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the “peasant” in France came to symbolize the lower classes in general. Peasant paintings tended to function in a socially reassuring fashion, by displacing middle-class anxiety away from the ever-troublesome proletariat to the more distant peasant, isolated in the countryside.

The idealization of the peasants and rural life calmed bourgeois fears, while a more realistic approach had effect of drawing bourgeois attention to those left behind by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 in pre-Industrial conditions.  In France, artistic depiction of the lower classes was a political act that could easily be construed as a critique of bourgeois power.  In England, the plight of the lower classes was conveyed in terms of an artistic narrative of reform that was a positive echo of the effort by the British government to bring about peaceful changes in society.

In America, “realism” was a more amorphous impulse.  Not so much a movement as a choice of subject matter and the employment of a certain technique, realism in America often crossed paths with American Romanticism.  Romanticism lingered much longer in America because it continued to serve cultural needs.  Romanticism, from the very beginning, was allied to landscape painting, which was used to create a sense of nationhood. One of the tasks of the landscape painter was to reveal the wonders of American scenery. In the American northeast, these landscapes were tinged with a Romantic nostalgia as the mythic Wilderness was being ruthlessly carved away to make way for settlements.

As the frontier moved from East to West, Romantic landscape painting moved with it, but the paintings that resulted were highly realistic in their naturalistic details.  Frederich Church and Albert Bierstadt competed to see whose work was the most accurate in the rendition of nature.  Indigenous American art had a much older tradition of realism and genre painting that could be applied to the Romantic tradition.  The audience for these paintings were the Easterners who had never seen and could not imagine the wonders of the scenery.  On one level, these paintings, often large and expansive, were educations in and or themselves.  On the other hand, the landscapes barely concealed a subtext of imperialism and colonial conquest.

George Caleb Bingham’s scenes of everyday life on the frontier were sometimes reflective of Romanticism, especially its close American relative, Luminism, in his scenes on the Mississippi. On the other hand, he paintings could be completely anecdotal and full of a nationalistic narrative.  In contrast to French Realism, American realism was more akin to the English Pre-Raphaelites with their preference for storytelling conveyed through a multitude of details.  Realism, in America, was coincidence with realistic rendering, often a specific technique learned in Düsseldorf and imported to America.  After the 1850s when the frontier moved West of the Mississippi, realism became more urban and romanticism continued to be aligned to landscape painting.  Like Romanticism, Realism lingered in America, long after its European counterparts had become exhausted.

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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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