REALISM IN FRANCE AND ENGLAND

The main goal of a Realist artist in France was to create an objective and detached description of banal reality, as it existed, in all its ordinariness.  Realism, tended to adhere to a particular social point of view that of championing the poor or the lower classes.  Depending upon the artist, Realism could be very confrontational, like the art of Gustave Courbet or very conservative, like the paintings of Rosa Bonheur. Basically Realism, expressed a modern desire to look at that which existed in the here and now, rather than re-create a dead world in a dead language, such as Neoclassicism, or to imagine a fantasy world, in the way of Romanticism. Realism demanded, not only new content, but also a new way of making art, based upon the question of how to see, really see, and to look at the “real.” The result of these Realist experiments was a certain consistency in subject matter but a variety of approaches to executing a response to the world, as it existed. But Realism was far too complex from nation to nation to be reduced to a simple-minded contrast to Romanticism. Like Romanticism, Realism was never a style and was never uniform in content. Full of contradictions, Realism could include, in France, the daughter of a Saint-Simonist, Rosa Bonheur, the petit-bourgeois painter, Gustave Courbet, the narrator of amusing tableaux of middle class life in America, Lily Martin Spencer, the elegant portraits of British society by James Tissot, and the international provocateur par excellence, international artist, James Whistler. Realism incorporated a number of artistic and literary impulses, including Naturalism and Impressionism, and would be a longer movement, lasting at least forty years until the 1880s.

Although the Romantic imagination is often compared to Realist observation of every day life, Realism contained elements of escapism, just as Romanticism had contained elements of Realism.  France continued its dominance in the world of the arts, but Realism was far from a French phenomenon.  Realism begins, in fact, in England in 1848 with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB was founded while the rest of Europe was embroiled in yet another Revolution. The Brotherhood was inspired by the events on the continent but concentrated, at first, on religious subjects. For the artists, such as John Millais, Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the goal of their painting was to convey the moral truth through art. The notion of “pre” and the term “Raphaelite” referred to a return to a period of art before the pomp and circumstance of Raphael during the Renaissance. The artists looked backward to the pious altarpieces of the early Renaissance artists who rendered religious scenes in great detail and careful drawing. The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Millais, obliterated academic style with his obsessive delineation of closely observed nature. It was said that he painted an area the size of am American quarter in a day’s work. Long before the Impressionists, the PRB worked from nature out of doors, copying every element with precision. In addition, also long before the Impressionists, these artists painted on white ground. The result was an intensity of color not seen since the early Renaissance. The PRB wanted to return to that state of grace in which art had a reason and a purpose that was moral and didactic. Their moral intent was carried by their painterly techniques which were the visual equivalent of a novel by Balzac. “Realism” was lavishly displayed in detail, enhancing the sense of reality of artists conveying the actuality of Victorian life. The moral aspects of the paintings lay in their stories or their narratives, giving British painting a definitive literary quality lacking in French painting.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood explored the qualities and romances of the past, such as the legends of King Arthur, they also examined contemporary social issues in a rapidly industrializing England. Their stances were not political but moral and their audiences were outraged not by the social critique but by the intense colors and plethora of minutiae which ruled the surface of the canvases. It is a coincidence that the PRB debuted in 1848, a year of political revolution and rebellion on the Continent, and, like the rest of the English, the artists watched Europe once again flailing in attempts to resolve political problems they were working through via slow legal changes. Perhaps because the artists in France experienced the uprising of 1848 directly, their artistic response was more political and their content was more politicized by the art audience. The Revolution of 1848 was the final blow to Romanticism and the final fading  illusions of the French Revolution of 1789 died with a whimper in a hail of gunfire on the barricades. But the revolution was echoed in the corridors of the art world.

Realism was a revolt against the Academies in both England and France, where classicism still ruled. Classicism was more than a tired style or a dead language, it was the linear mode of the expression of powers and desires of the state. For the English, classicism was an upholding of tradition; for the French classicism was an extension of the will of the nation, as interpreted by the new Emperor, Napoléon III. If art was kept in the past, in terms of style and content, then any contemporary critique would be blunted. The artists who cooperated with the desire of the artistic authorities to keep the clock from moving were amply rewarded; those who did not comply were punished. For the Realist artist, the transcendence of time seen in the academic worship of the past should be—had to be—replaced by the particular and observable events of the contemporary era. On one hand, it was important for art to stay relevant by being of its own time. On the other hand, for art to be meaningful it had to address the questions of its time. One could argue that the art of the first Emperor did just that. Artists chronicled the career of Napoléon almost in real time, but the motive was to glorify the emperor. If the truth was told in the process then that was a collateral effect. After Napoléon’s downfall and demise, a new monarchy took a dim view of an artist rendering a contemporary event, such as Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), widely understood to be critical of the government. Thirty years later, the universal event was replaced by the unique event, taking place in a fleeting moment of time. In contrast, Academic art, “history” signified an entire narrative that had moral and ethical importance. Within French Realism, the anti-academic approach told no story and imparted no significance to the depicted scenes. Gustave Courbet, a native of Franch-Comté, came from a province of France that was the birthplace of socialism, and he slipped scenes of petit-bourgeoisie life into the Salons, scenes that were matter of fact depictions from a native of a region. His perspective as an insider distinguished Courbet from Jean-François Millet who painted peasants from the distanced aristocratic viewpoint of an observer. While Millet was known as a communist, Courbet was known as a socialist, but the artists could both claim to be “realists” who were merely recording ordinary life. The audiences, however, rightly so, suspected post-revolutionary political content.

Realism also turned away from the concept of style, particularly as a personal trait that expressed one’s personality, as it had for the Romantic artists. Delacroix and Ingres asserted themselves by flouting or by exaggerating the academic style, setting themselves apart as a dialectic between what the art historian Heinrich Wollflin would later refer to as the “linear” (Ingres) and the “painterly” (Delacroix).  The Realist artist resisted academic conventions and rejected the influence of the trained artistic eye that came between an honest depiction of reality and the hand of the artist. In fact, Gustave Courbet was trained in the provinces and made a career of flouting his country origins and developed his own way of painting that enhanced the material reality of the scenes he painted. In the later stages of Realism, especially during Impressionism, artists, such as Monet, expressed the desire to see as innocently as a child. The Realists were grudgingly accepted by the French Academy and eventually a kinder and gentler manner of realism emerged with artists such as Rosa Bonheur and Jules Breton, who celebrated French traditions of the countryside.

Therefore, Realism was also anti-Romantic by rejecting the escape into the unreal or the past or the exotic. The Romantic artist’s struggle for self-expression was replaced by the desire to depict one’s own time. Honoré’s statement, “Il faut être de son temps” was the battle cry of the Realists who preferred humble subjects compared to the exotic and fantastical narratives of the Romantics. On the other hand, there was a middle road, or the juste milieu, taken by many painters in the 1850s and 1860s, who avoided the classicism of the academy  but who turned to history as a safe place to practice a realism dedicated to recreation. Paul Delaroche was the master of English history, using the tales of British treachery and misdeeds to remind the French audiences of their own still unspeakable past. Did he use The Execution of Lady Jane Gray (1833) as a parable of the summary killing of the French king and queen? And what parallel in French history did The Princes in the Tower (1830) indicate? Delaroche’s approach is a mixture of painterly realism with an Ingres-like flair and theatrical drama, drawing in the audience as witnesses to a moment in time before the worst happens. The rejection of both Academic art and of Romantic ideals signaled a new understanding that even the ordinary is important and should be rendered as seriously as a noble deed from the past. Or if one does not want to depict the ordinary, then one can safely defy the Academy with historical events that audiences appreciate and the state tolerates.

But Realism brings up a new question: where is “reality” located? The Pre-Raphaelites decided that “realism” and its attendant moralizing had to be located to the contemporary era for their art to have any impact. This relocation was more than a shift in time but also a re-placing of “reality,” relocating the significance of life in the city or urban conditions. In parallel to the Pre-Raphaelites, the poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire began to plead with the artists of his time to take notice of urban life. Taking note of the funeral attire, the black suits of the bourgeoisie males, Charles Baudelaire argued that there was a unique kind of “modern” with his section called “The Heroism of Modern Life” for the Salon of 1946. Baudelaire wrote,

But to return to our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions, I observe that the majority of artists who have attacked modern life have contented themselves with public and official subjects – with our victories and our political heroism. Even so, they do it with an ill grace, and only because they are commissioned by the government which pays them. However there are private subjects which are very much more heroic than these. The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences – criminals and kept women – which drift about in the underworld of a great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.

But Baudelaire would be disappointed. The next painter who was a Realist was Gustave Courbet but Courbet’s topic was the provinces of France and the life of the lower middle-classes. Baudelaire was disappointed in Courbet and did not live long enough to see that maturation of the artist who would paint the heroism of modern life–Édouard Manet. Twenty years after Baudelaire’s suggestion that artists notice urban society, the poet published The Painter of Modern Life in 1863. This long essay was his last great work and he was too soon distracted by his debts and failing health and fled to Brussels to escape his creditors. While Gustave Courbet mimicked the clumsy and naïve approach of outsider artists, Manet irritated his critics with his abbreviated and semiotic style of brushwork and scandalized his audience with his frankly declarative works that revealed the underside of the leisure time of the wealthy urban Parisian male. One of his few defenders was his friend the naturalist novelist, Emile Zola who discussed Manet’s work solely in formalist terms, avoiding the obvious questions of content and subject matter. Realism was, therefore, an individual response to actual life as observed by and interpreted by the artist. Realism was, as Emile Zola expressed it, “nature seen from the corner of a temperament.”  In order to see freshly, Manet discarded conventional composition and traditional chiaroscuro was disregarded, color became local rather than emotional or formal.  Like philosophy, the art of realism in France came to increasingly rest upon empiricism and close observation.  

The role of the Realist artist was to tell the truth.  Reasons for telling the truth and for making objective art varied.  Some artists, such as Ernst Meissonier, used the idea of photographic realism to recreate a historical scene with accuracy. Other artists, such as Rosa Bonheur, used realism to celebrate the working animals of the rural life of her country, la belle France.  It would be incorrect to assume that those two artists were not political, for both were very nationalistic in their intentions to celebrate France and its heritage.Other  Realist artists, such as Jean-François Millet or Gustave Courbet were considered to be “political,” “Red,” or “communist,” because they did not uphold the existing artistic order and challenged its social preconceptions of rigid class stratifications. Millet’s The Gleaners of 1857 showed the plight of the landless peasant in the age of the collective corporate farm. In England, Holman Hunt took up the theme of the “fallen woman,” the social problem of the Victorian era, and presented a morality tale to the audience with The Awakening Conscience. Edouard Manet had no such moral pretensions in his equally graphic images of the woman in her fallen state, such as Nana, a smiling courtesan inspired by Emil Zola’s novel of the same nameWhatever the artist’s motivations, Realism was based upon the scientific method.  Like scientists, they observed nature and recorded it faithfully.  Like scientists, they supposedly sat passively before nature and copied it without comment or judgment.  But the vaunted objectivity of any of these artists should not be taken literally, for no human is ever completely objective or nonjudgmental.  Courbet had every intention of confronting bourgeois complacency with his realistic depictions of ordinary life among the petit bourgeois of his home territory of Franche-Comté.

The later accusations of passivity that were leveled against the Impressionists especially do not reflect the fact that artists are actively selecting their content.  The Impressionists, who extended Realist to its logical outcome, painted their optical impressions of light and color.  But the Impressionists eschewed the provocative content of their predecessors and did not confront the audience with social challenges.  The last of the Realist groups, the Impressionists selected suburban scenes of middle class life, where the sun always shone and the skies were always blue and the people were always joyous. Keeping in mind that “impressionism” was a derogratory term, it is also important to be aware of the reception of the Realist artists.  The art audience was often hostile towards Realist art in terms of subject matter while accepting, however, grudgingly the talents of the artist.   Although there were those who objected to his workman-like use of the palette knife, Courbet’s painting skills were universally acknowledged.  Manet, on the other hand, would be roundly condemned for is complete abandonment of academic technique. And the Barbizon School and the Impressionists would be excoriated for their neglect of the rules of academic “finish” when it came to completing a painting in the appropriate manner.

When examining the critical reception of the Realists, it seems that even provocative content could be somewhat tolerated as long as some semblance of recognizable “skill” was visible.  When painterly technique diverged too radically from the academic standards, the audience was scandalized, regardless of the subject matter. Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, both transition artists, would be the last of their kind in their quest for Salon acceptance and the recognition of the Academy. The Impressionists would completely reject the academic system and would make their case to the avant-garde collector. It is here with this last generation of the Realist artists, that the avant-garde matured with Impressionism.

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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