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, George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) (1804-1876), the novelist, and Jean-Françoise Millet, the painter, both from wealthy or well-to-do backgrounds, concentrated on peasant life. In an essay on “George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. A Study,” Fanny Raymond Ritter wrote about the “inspiration” that “flowed from her, let us not forget the assertion of some of her admirers, that she created a revolution in the entire school of French landscape paintings among her contemporaries. All unprejudiced observers of the progress of art and literature will so far agree with this as to admit that, but for the pen that brought French cinerary..into fashion even in France itself–but for George Sand’s extraordinary truth of descriptive detail in conveying not only the care general impressions of landscapes–such men as Daubigny, Dupré, Theodore Rousseau and their followers, would have sought to illustrate foreign scenes and subjects more often. It was this powerful literary influence that kept pictorial fancy busy at home.”  Published in Dwight’s Journal of Music: A Paper of Art and Literature in 1880, this primary source made an interesting like, not often mentioned today, that the fame of Sand’s novels about the French countryside inspired a homegrown school of native, instead of Italian, landscape paintings.

Paul Gavarni. A Lithograph of George Sand dressed in Men’s Clothing (circa 1840)

In fact, it was Sand, along with her contemporary, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) who drew attention to the charms of the outlying provinces of France in their novels. Balzac was born in the Loire Valley in the village of Ponte-de-Ruan and Sand was a mere sixty miles away, also along the Indre River, observing peasant live in the heart of France at the very point in time before this way of life will begin to evolve and bend under the march of modernism. Balzac’s most famous novels, The Human Comedy, was an extended multi-volume examination of Parisian life, but Madame Bovary presented a God’s eye view of small town provincial life. Visual artists preferred, for decades, peasant life celebrated by Sand in a series of novels that began in the 1830s: Indiana (1832) Valentine (1832) Lélia (1833) Andréa (1833) Mattéa (1833) Jacques (1833). This so called “rustic novels” were love stories, love of the countryside and relationships among men and women against that backdrop: La Mare au diable (1846), François le Champi (1848), and La Petite Fadette (1849). Balzac also wrote in the same decades of social change as Sand and his ninety novels and novellas in La Comédie humaine series were a critique of a changing Paris reshaped by politics before 1848 and its many revolutions. Both authors wrote with an air of wistful nostalgia for the simpler ways of the countryside and for the more straightforward moral codes untainted by capitalism. These early “realist” novelists wrote about contemporary experiences seen and felt and witnessed, whether deliberately or not in distinction from Romanticism with its dependence upon the unbridled imagination. 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. Compared to the visual art of Gustave Courbet of the next century, these works were less political than insisting on the value of telling stories of the obscure rather than the famous and fantastic. Indeed after the Revolutions of 1848, art in France became politicized and even peasant paintings deemed too realistic, i. e., “ugly.” Even Millet became suspect due to his communistic leanings.

One fo the most recent books on Realism is The Antinomies of Realism by Frederic Jameson. Writing in 2015, he expressed frustration at the slipperiness of the term “realism.” Realism,” he said, “for or against: but as opposed to what? At this point the list becomes at least relatively interminable: realism vs. romance, realism vs. epic, realism vs. melodrama, realism vs. idealism, realism vs. naturalism, (bourgeois or critical) realism vs. socialist realism, realism vs. the oriental tale, and of course, most frequently rehearsed of all, realism vs. modernism. As is inevitably the case with such a play of opposites, each of them becomes inevitably invested with politi­cal and even metaphysical significance.” As Jameson pointed out, Realism is often described in relation to what it is not, but thinking in terms of antinomies does not address the added distinctions between what realism meant in England, a highly industrialized society, and France, a very rural culture, wrapped around the city of Paris, and America, the New World. In addition, Realism changed according to the decade in question. For example, in France, “realism” began as a country affair concerning peasants and ended in the city of Paris. Those who have argued that Realism must be concerned with the kind of bourgeois life created by capitalism have not accounted for the rural or rustic genre of realism. Indeed, the next point of contention becomes that of the connection between “realism” and the “modern.”  

In the same decade George Sand was writing her rustic novels, in England, John Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, turned their attention to “modern problems,” or life in an urban culture.  The Pre-Raphaelite artists were certainly painting from a position of social privilege, as was Sand, but their content was frequently urban, more like Balzac, reflecting the realities of life in London at mid-century. Just as Balzac loaded his novels with an immense weight of detail that painted a picture of middle class life every bit as catalogued as Holman Hunt’s The Awakening. In London, these dissident young painters raised issues of class in their paintings, questioning the way in which lower class women were used by upper class men or pointing out that the family of Jesus was lower class, but the scandals wrought by Jesus in the House of his Parents (1849-50) were mild compared to those in Paris which was just recovering from the Revolution of 1848.  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 France, therefore, 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. Acceptable peasant paintings, such as those by Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jules Breton and Léon-Augustin L’hermitte, 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 and engaged in manual labor in the fields. 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.

Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. The Gleaners (1887)

In America, “realism” was a more amorphous impulse. Lacking a strong native culture in the arts, America was, for the most part, a cultural wasteland in terms of any kind of art. The nation was too busy building and growing and expanding to pause and make art. Only on the east coast, which had been settled for two hundred years did a home grown and totally American realism emerge. Of course America had lower class individuals and neighborhoods that were slums but “class” in the European fashion was not an issue and the mood was aspirational in terms of social mobility. 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, in America, was used to create a sense of nationhood. One of the tasks of the American 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. 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.

George Caleb Bingham. Shooting for the Beef  (1850)

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. 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. And thus we are brought to the question of “reading” the visual arts. Jameson was interested in the distinction between telling and showing: Now it can be articulated not as récit versus roman, nor even telling versus showing; but rather destiny versus the eternal present. And what is crucial is not to Joad one of these dies and take sides for the one or the other as ali our theorists seemed to do, but rather to grasp the proposition that realism lies at their intersection. Realism is a consequence of the tension between these two terms; to resolve the opposition either way would destroy it..” In other words, a narrative, a telling, is about something that takes place in the past, while the novel exists in the present because it shows, demonstrates, describes a slice of time. Another way to consider Jameson and his discussion of realism is to think of a Romantic landscape painting which exists outside of time because it shows and yet is also deeply descriptive and redolent of a particular place and moment it time. The tension between some form of narrative—the West is to be won—and another kind of demonstration—this is nature at its most unspoiled found in American landscape painting is what Jameson described as “realism”–a consequence of tension.

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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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