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.

Perhaps because the artists in France experienced the uprising directly, their artistic response was more political and more politicized by the art audience.  The Revolution of 1848 was the final blow to Romanticism and all illusions of the French Revolution of 1789 died on the barricades.  The impact of the Revolution of 1848 is the chief reason why realism in America is a special case and why when the term “Realism” is used in art history, the speaker often thinks of England or France, and especially France.

First, Realism was a revolt against the Academies in both England and France, where classicism still ruled.  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.   The universal event was replaced by the unique event, taking place in a fleeting moment of time.  In Academic art, “history” signified an entire narrative that had moral and ethical importance.  Within Realism, the anti-academic approach told no story and imparted no significance to the depicted scenes. Contemporary history was approached with the same deadpan viewpoint used for more banal moments.  There is nothing romantic or glorious about Manet’s Execution of Maximilian (1867), only embarrassment and tragedy.  Realism was also anti-Romantic by rejecting the escape into the unreal.

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.  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. Taking note of the funeral attire, the black suits of the bourgeoisie males, Charles Baudelaire argued that there was a unique kind of “modern” heroism of everyday life. In the Salon of 1946, he 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.

Realism also turned away from the concept of style, particularly as a personal trait that expressed one’s personality.  Delacroix and Ingres asserted themselves by flouting or by exaggerating the academic style.  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.  Many Realist artists expressed the desire to see as innocently as a child and this need for nonconventional innocence resulted in a challenge to the received techniques of the Academy.

The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Millais, obliterated academic style with his obsessive delineation of closely observed nature.  Gustave Courbet mimicked the clumsy and naïve approach of outsider artists.  The result, as Emile Zola expressed it, was “nature seen from the corner of a temperament.”  In order to see freshly, conventional composition and chiaroscuro were disregarded and color became local rather than emotional or formal.  Like philosophy, art came to increasingly rest upon empiricism and close observation.  However, there was a genuine desire on the part of the artist to throw off the weight of the dead history of classical art (to paraphrase Karl Marx) and to defy the authority of the previous generation.

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.  Some 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 pretentions 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 name.

Whatever 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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