For the Realist artist, the world is a given and the sole aim of the artist is to describe this world.  In attempting to see the world without the subjective, the artists were acting like Positivist philosophers.  Idealism was rejected and ugliness was accepted.  For Realist artists, such as Gustave Courbet, it was 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.

“To know in order to create, that was my idea.  To be capable of depicting the manners, ideas, and appearance of my time as I see it, in short, to produce living art, that is my goal…”

Writing fifteen years later in 1880, Emile Zola described the “naturalist” novel.

“I have said that the naturalistic novel is simply an inquiry into nature, beings, and things.  It no interests itself in the ingenuity of a well-invented story, developed according to certain rules.  Imagination has no longer place, plot matters little to t the novelist, who bothers himself with either development, mystery, nor dénouement; I mean that he does not intervene to take away from or add to reality; he does not construct a framework out of the whole cloth according to the needs of a preconceived idea.  You start from the point that nature is sufficient; that you must accept it  as it is, without modification or pruning; it is grand enough, beautiful enough to supply its own beginning, its middle, and its end…you should simply take the life study of a person or a group of persons, whose actions you faithfully depict.  The work becomes a report, nothing more….”

Zola was rejecting literary or artistic practices.  For centuries painting had been based upon a number of conventions or schema or art devices, developed by artists over time, which stood for reality and operated like signs.   These signifiers could be read by the spectator, reinforcing the fact that art was a language with its own grammar and syntax and its own complex vocabulary.  Perspective was invented in the Renaissance, provided, through the use of orthogonals converging at a vanishing point, an illusion of space, a space ample enough to contain volumetric figures and objects.  Chiaroscuro gave them three dimensional objects the illusion of volume on a two dimensional plant, similar to the appearance of sculpture, especially that of bas relief sculpture, through a system of lights and darks.  The gradation of tone creates the illusion of a form that is advancing and receding.

Chiaroscuro not only provides the means of volumetric illusion for not only single objects but also for the composition as a whole.   Important areas are highlighted and as the composition moves inward from dark edges to a light filled center, focusing the viewer’s attention on the subject.  This hierarchy of elements in the composition is further reinforced by the use of aerial perspective in which the outlines of objects far away are blurred, compared to those close at hand which have sharp outlines and contours. This play between blurred and sharp contours also works within the composition as a whole, regardless of distance, to focus the viewer’s attention on important details and parts.

Thus the viewer is directed through use of conventions of artistic devices in the reading of the painting from less important to more important hierarchy of detail and parts, adding up to a unified whole of chiaroscuro, lights and darks, within a structured composition composed according to the rules of perspective.   The vocabulary of art includes, in addition, a series of gestures, poses, and postures called by avant-garde artists “rhetorical,” which stood for feelings and emotions and actions and could be decoded by the audience.  The entire system of conventional painterly devices and signs was challenged by the so-called “advanced” artists in the Nineteenth Century, struggling to replace what can be called an academic or conventional realism, which depended upon schemata.   The Realist artists sought a fresh look at nature and the world around them.

The English critic, John Ruskin rejected classicism because it was art about art and thus removed from nature itself.  Although Ruskin’s equation of nature, God, and truth was not shared by all artists, his call to artists to turn away from conventional realism to nature itself was widely shared and heeded.  The avant-garde artists were consciously attempting to forge a new artistic language that was not dependent upon art itself but was derived from nature, the real world, not an improved fantasy, but a new vocabulary that would express a truer reality, free of artistic schemata, conventions and devices accepted in the past as representing reality.

The history of Nineteenth Century art is the story of a struggle against schemata.  The only remedy was a careful study of nature.  Nature was seen as a source of objective truth.  For the Realist artists, science and history became the models for a new mode of action.  It was assumed that history was a “science” based upon careful and impartial observation of the facts and evidence, and that science was a procedure that rejected metaphysics and belief systems.  The Realist artists had to follow an unconventional and non-academic methodology, based upon empiricism, unsupported by artistic techniques.  The result was the necessity to render only what could be seen, eliminating content that could not be witnessed, whether the past or fantasy.

Although the Realist artist could respond only to the contemporary, an entirely new world of content opened up, as suddenly the ordinary and the everyday became accepted subject matter.   Realism stood for a rejection of all that was false in art, from imaginary content to time worn conventions of illusionism.  Truth became equated with authenticity and sincerity, the prime motivations of the Realist artist who rejected the poncif of training and learned technique.

The Realist artists startled audiences, not by a careful copying of nature, but by the choice of content.  Often these artists selected the lower classes as their focus of attention, not as objects to be studied, but as content to be elevated.  The notion that marginalized people and places were worthy of artistic attention convinced conservative art audiences that the Realists artists were not only discarding artistic conventions but that they were also deliberately provoking public disapproval. For the Realist artist, the only answer was that the world was a given and that the role of the artist was to respond non-judgmentally to it without preconceived ideas.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]

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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