Realism to Impressionism
Development and types of Realist art during the 19th century.

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Detail from The Gleaners (1857)
Louvre Museum, Paris.
By Jean-Francois Millet, the great
painter of French peasants and
their working environment.

For dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.

Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900)
Development and Types of Realist Art


Advent of Realism
1848 Revolution - Industrial Developments - Rise in Expectations
Transition towards Realism via Landscape Painting
Decline of Individualism
Facts versus Imagination
Origins of Objectivity and Realist Aesthetics
French Impressionism - the Ultimate Form of Realism
Variants of Impressionism
Different Meanings of Realism
Twentieth Century Developments in Realism

Detail from the genre painting
A Burial at Ornans (1849)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
By Gustave Courbet, the driving
force behind French Realism of
the nineteenth century.

Ville d'Avray (1867)
National Gallery of Art, Washington.
By Camille Corot, romantic naturalist
turned realist.


Realism - one of the most important art movements of the modern era - grew up as a result of the rapid changes in industrial and social conditions which occurred during the course of the 19th century. Its rise was also influenced by the growing importance of science and the corresponding decline of Romantic individualism. Arguably the first real movement of Modern art, this new and prosaic idiom of Realist painting led directly to Monet's Impressionism and, after, to the de-coupling of painting from nature. Paradoxically, all this opened the door to abstract art and the various strands of Expressionism which emerged in the 20th century.

Advent of Realism

The 19th century was a complex period. Until about 1850 the main struggle was between the conflicting aims of Classicism and Romanticism; afterwards these were replaced, almost brutally, by various forms of Realism. Classical artists used the past as their model, Romantic artists tried to escape through the imagination. The Realist artists who followed aimed to express the 'real' as it existed, to present the 'here and now' without any reference to the past. They regarded it as a token of the future promised by a new divinity - progress. This meant a complete break with the ancient classical tradition, and also a rejection of the Romantic's escape into personal dreamworlds. The Realist artist grappled with the problems of creating a new order based on the direct observation of what was around him.

1848 Revolution - Industrial Developments - Rise in Expectations

Contemporary events are always reflected in changes of thought and aesthetic feeling. The 1848 revolution marked the end of a regime and the end of a way of life, whose knell had already been sounded sixty years earlier in the French Revolution of 1789. This time, however, the whole civilization of western Europe was involved in the catastrophe. The republican movement arose in Italy, in Germany and in Austria. Metternich, the champion of the old order, was crushed. Socialism became the policy under the July monarchy. What the French Revolution had begun in 1789 had since been thwarted despite a clear aggravation of its causes. Now, in 1848, though the socialists held power for only a few months, the way to the future was signposted, and during these few months universal adult suffrage became established.

During the previous twenty years the economic structure of life had been changing. Men had learnt how to make use of energy which was latent in nature, and to apply it to work the newly invented machines which were to become the whole basis of industry. In 1830, the first train to carry passengers travelled between Liverpool and Manchester at 35 m.p.h. London became the focal point of a rapidly growing railway system. The first Atlantic shipping line was opened at the same time as steamships began to replace sail. The invention of the telegraph and the telephone and the introduction of the postage stamp all took place in the twenty years from 1835 to 1855. Scientific discoveries and their practical application during the first half of the century had made this new civilization possible. They raised up great hopes for the future.

In earlier societies agricultural life demanded a conservative outlook. Agricultural methods could only be perfected slowly and conditions of life changed little over long periods of time. But the new society was marked by constant transformations as invention followed invention, all of which were based on the scientific observation of fact. Man now controlled his own destiny and could reshape, rearrange or turn his new tools to his own purposes. He no longer sought refuge from an unchanging world in ideas and dreams. Instead he faced 'reality' and, in making use of it, developed ambitions and hopes.

At the same time all industrial advancement seemed to be to the detriment of the working classes, who nevertheless multiplied in number and grew in importance, and who replaced the craftsmen of earlier times. A.C. de Tocqueville had already noted this in relation to America. As mechanical progress accelerated so restlessness among the working classes became more clearly apparent. It became necessary, therefore, to think in terms of the welfare of the workers as well as in terms of material advancement.

Within fifty years western Europe found itself faced with radically new problems. On the one hand the incredible developments of science and industry created immense hopes whose limits could not even be guessed. On the other hand the plight of the working class created an immediate danger which demanded urgent attention. All this would have a major impact on contemporary aesthetics and on the development of art across Europe.




At first the conservative elements refused to recognise the change or the new order of things, and they stiffened their attitude both in politics and in art. After the first shocks the traditionally monarchic powers united their forces in the Holy Alliance. In art classicism led to an official academic style: see Classicism and Naturalism in the 17th century. This 'ideal' conception was based on the old order, but was doomed to disappear as an agricultural civilization gave way to an industrial civilization.

The 'ideal' of classicism could only be approached by a certain self-denial and by means of great effort. Its place became challenged by the wish-fulfilment of Romanticism. The epic expansion under Napoleon had brought comparable aesthetic desires in its wake. For France the defeat was terrible. For years French morale had become elated by victories and conquests, but now it found itself in the strait-jacket of bourgeois practical interests with their cramped outlook and their drive for financial wealth. The aesthetic and intellectual spirit could find no outlet under the materialism of the Restoration and the July monarchy.


The whole of Europe was in this plight. The aristocracy and the belief in ideal values had disappeared. The people, whose fury in the past had led to revolution, were now dulled and enslaved. They had been prepared for the fulfilment of ambitions which were quite limitless and they were suddenly thrown back into a narrower channel than ever. The fruit of this crisis was Romanticism, because only dreams offered them salvation, and the free play of the imagination was the most effective means of flight from present reality. Around 1830, Romantic artists turned for their subjects to the world of fiction and chose themes out of the past or from distant lands, or they allowed their fantasy free rein. This could not last, just as the normal way of life in the past could not be artificially extended. Man finally had to accept the authentic pressure of the times, and in the 19th century this led in the opposite direction, back to the 'real' which imposed itself and its rule. There was no other possible future for the new phase upon which humanity had embarked.

Transition towards Realism via Landscape Painting

To go from the individualism of 1830 (founded on dreams), to the strict positivism of 1850, (based on concrete realities), it was necessary to pass through a period of transition. In art, this transition was achieved through the medium of landscape painting and nature. Only nature could satisfy simultaneously the dreamer and the realist. In nature the Romantic individualist could find solitude, he could extend himself to the limits of the world and find fusion of his human soul in the universal soul of nature. To the nascent Realist, nature offered the immediate solution of naturalism. The artist could contemplate what he saw and render it authentically, and thus he learned to communicate with the 'real'. The Realist artist tried to avoid preconceived notions - Utopian idealism or escapist Romanticism. The classical landscapes of P.H. de Valenciennes and of A.E. Michallon were still ruled by convention, as were the Romantic landscapes with figures by the Nazarenes, by Camille Corot and by V.N. Diaz, and those by Michel and Huet in France and by John Martin and J.M.W. Turner in England which placed no restrictions on the imagination. Following them the new landscape of the intermediate phase preceded the landscape of strict optical observation which was to come with the Impressionists. Both the Romantic and the Realist felt equally at home in this lyrical phase, for in it the visible and the sensuous were almost indistinguishable.

The Barbizon school in France most clearly reflected the aesthetic mood of the period. There lingered the subjective rapture of the Romantics so well expressed by Custine in his Memoires et Voyages written in 1830: "The senses are neglected, art is neglected, even a fine physique is neglected. The external world disappears, and nature comes to an end. The supernatural begins to reign, and man no longer looks outwards but only into himself." Something of this remained in the work of Theodore Rousseau, the greatest landscape painter of the Barbizon school, whose art is so completely misunderstood today.

Decline of Individualism

By 1850 individualism (the importance of the individual) had become discredited, and objectivity had become the aim of man's ambitions. Furthermore, this objectivity attempted to be free from all influence or distortion due to the 'personal factor' (subjectivity), as it was disdainfully called. Objectivity required the submission of the individual to the collective, which demanded the sacrifice of any differing point of view. 'Humanity' became virtually a sacred myth. In the new pantheon it took its place beside two other new divinities, 'the future ' and 'progress'. From then on everything became related to the sciences which were based on observation. Previously. imagination had been the faculty by which the Romantic artist turned everything which he gained from the exterior world to his own inner purposes. Now instead, in order to make the fullest use of objective reality, he trusted only observation. So that this observation should in no way be tainted by any personal feeling, it was made to obey the universal and intangible rules of science. Whereas the Romantic had responded to poetic or musical aspirations, the new artists regarded science as the source of the only possible truth.

Facts versus Imagination

The new artists - these so-called realists - saw painting as a physical language which dealt only with the visible world. They thought that anything which was abstract, or conceptual (invisible or non-material) did not belong to the domain of painting. From mid-century, anything relating to the psyche was considered suspect since it was uncontrollable and tainted with individualism. From science there spread a universal cult of fact. All this represented a complete reversal of the Romantic outlook. As far as the Romantics were concerned, facts only counted to the extent that they awoke interior responses through which could be translated the unique feelings of a single individual. It was much the same in the case of the classical artists. The classical painter elaborated an idea of the mind according to classical rules; mere fact was only a point of departure and a structural element.

Origins of Objectivity and Realist Aesthetics

The Greeks founded a new method of thought which was to underlie the whole development of Western civilization. In Greek thought, the object observed was clearly separated from the subject who observes. In the objective view of an object the interior life and inherent characteristics of the observer are eliminated as far as humanly possible. The subject alone possesses a soul and lives in time. The object belongs to space, where it can be defined and measured, and where it obeys the laws of logic. We have been so profoundly penetrated by this tradition of the subjective and the objective that we accept it as natural, spontaneous and inherent in man. This process of thought born in Greece remains the foundation of our thinking today.

As science took to itself responsibility for the whole future of humanity it led art into accepting its technique of objective observation, and this way of thinking was also applied to resolve the social problems created by the development of the machine. This program was basic to Realist aesthetics, although it was some time before realist artists fully accepted it. Millet, for example, refused to be moved by politics and the democratic outlook. His art was dedicated to the life of the peasant in the fields: see, for instance, works like Man with a Hoe (1862) and The Angelus (1859). Honore Daumier, in a similar way, was moved by the force of Romanticism and translated it into a large and grandiose vision. But he also accepted politics - after all, his people were the newcomers in the towns - the proletariat. However, it was Courbet who finally accepted both the Realist and the socialist credo and the need for objective Realism, in art and in politics. See his complex masterpiece entitled The Artist's Studio (1855, Musee d'Orsay). (Compare Victorian art in Britain.)

French Impressionism - the Ultimate Form of Realism

The generation which followed Courbet found a more accurate pictorial solution to the 'scientific' problem. They accepted the idea of Realist objectivity, but took it to mean 'optical objectivity'. This was the foundation of Monet's Impressionism - the supreme expression of 19th century Realism. Paradoxically, Monet's Impressionism - at the same time as it represented the ultimate expression of Realism in art - triggered the downfall of this very Realism. This was because Monet's quest to replicate his impression of what was luminous and transitory, led to a complete neglect of form - that is, drawing and line. (Note: for a description of the Impressionist idiom, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)

please see the following articles:

Origins and Influences
Early History
Impressionist Edouard Manet
Impressionist Claude Monet
Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne
Claude Monet & Camille Pissarro Travel to London
Impressionist Painting Developments
Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris
Group Splits
Legacy of Monet's Impressionism

Variants of Impressionism

Not all French Impressionist painters were purists like Claude Monet (1840-1926). Manet, Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), for instance, adopted a more realist style of painting. And outside France, any similarity with Monet's style was much rarer. As it was, Germany, Holland, Russia, America and Australia gave birth to a very different type of Impressionist plein air painting based on the naturalist realism of the early Barbizon School. In Germany, this was represented by Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), Max Liebermann (1847-1935) and the Worpswede School, near Bremen, notably the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). In the Netherlands, it was exemplified by the landscapes and genre painting of the Dutch Hague School. In Russia, it was reflected in the works of Wanderers like Ivan Shishkin (1832-98), and Isaac Levitan (1860-1900). See also the naturalist-style Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn (1860-1920). Meantime, American Impressionism ranged from the more lyrical style of George Innes (1825-94) and Whistler (1834-1903), to the more controlled brushwork of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and Theodore Robinson (1852-96). In Australia, the leaders of the Heidelberg School - Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917) - created a style of Australian Impressionism more akin to the naturalism of Barbizon and realists like Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84).

Neo-Impressionism was another consequence of Monet's approach as well as the growing importance of science. Optical studies had already been undertaken in France by M E. Chevreul, who influenced Neo-Impressionist painters, in particular Georges Seurat, the founder of Pointillism, and Italian Divisionism (c.1890-1907). Research by H.L.F. von Helmholtz in Germany brought more and more attention to the analysis of physical sensation. Soon it was no longer sufficient to speak of 'reality' or the 'real', both philosophical terms; instead, attention turned to how reality is appreciated (our visual perception) by the senses.

The main consequence of Monet's Impressionism, however, concerned its obsession with trying to capture fleeting impressions of light - that is to say, exactly what is seen by the human eye. This fixation on light and colour led to a trend of 'dematerialisation', and gave the public - accustomed to ultra-representational academic art - the idea that art had stopped imitating nature. This notion - the idea that painting no longer needed to align itself with nature - opened the door for 20th century abstract art movements, with all their audacity, subjectivity and animism.

Different Meanings of "Realism"

In effect, by the end of the 19th century, several different schools of thought had grown up around the notion of "realism" in art. Their contrasting approaches may be summed up as follows:

1. Realism involves the use of traditional forms that reflect the ideal, unchanging world, as created by God. For instance, grass is green; the sea is blue; human faces should have regular features; rural scenes should be picturesque. There should be no ungodlike ugliness or unpleasantry, except insofar as it reflects and confirms an important moral viewpoint. (The standard "Classical" or "Academic" position.)

2. Realism involves the supreme importance of the individual's senses and feelings, because these are the only tangible things that are 'knowable' by anyone. (The standard "Romantic" position.)

3. Realism means representing life "warts and all". It means focusing on real issues including illness, toil and death. And real people are working people who are often unshaven, grey-faced, plain-looking, or wrinkled; houses are dirty or crooked; people can be fat and/or ugly. Just as important, "realist themes" include the mundane as well as the exalted, not least because real life mostly consists of everyday routines. (The basic "Realist" position.)

4. Realism is founded on precise optical fact. And optics are dependent on light. For instance, most observers agree that the sun can - at a certain point, say, at sunset - turn grass red or pink. Plein-air painting should reflect this scientific reality, and artists should paint the grass the colour it is. To put it simply, reality only exists in the impression one receives. (The standard position of Impressionist painters.)

5. Realism is based upon the perception of the artist. For instance, if he perceives a landscape as a mass of merging shapes and colours, that is how he should paint it. If he sees a flock of crows as essentially menacing, he should present them in this light. If he sees the world as a fundamentally absurd place, then it is natural for him to incorporate absurdity into his pictures. If he wishes to include certain symbols in his picture, or compose his painting in a certain way in order to convey a personal truth, felt intuitively by him, he is free to do so. (The Modernist, or early 20th century position.)

Twentieth Century Developments in Realism

Despite the rise of abstract art movements such as Cubism, Italian Futurism and English Vorticism, followed by Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Realism remained a powerful force within the field of representational art and continued to embrace a variety of schools, ranging from ultra-representational Academic painting (as taught in the Academies), Surrealism and Photorealism on the one hand, to the Ashcan School, Magic Realism and American Scene Painting on the other. The latest variant is Chinese Cynical Realism (1990s), a form of satirical painting which expressed the uncertainties in China following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Cynical Realists borrowed from several traditions, including Surrealism, Romanticism, Symbolism and Academic Art.


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