Realist Artists (c.1840-1900)
The term Realism was adopted by the great French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-77) in 1855 to encapsulate a style of painting which emerged in France after the Revolution of 1848. At the time, the main style was Romanticism - style of art characterized by emotion and spirituality, as well as the personal feelings of the artist. In contrast, Realism was objective, and down-to-earth. (No more sentimentality or wishful thinking.) Realist painters and sculptors sought to convey not grandeur or even beauty, but rather the commonplace - in all its ordinariness. Above all, Realism tried to present the lives and work of ordinary people. So while the style of Realist painting may vary, the theme or focus (on the reality of ordinary life) does not. Even so, Realist artists fully explored the confines of this aesthetic, and great artists - notably the sculptor Rodin (1840-1917) - succeeded in breathing heroicism into their works. Rodin's choice of subjects might seem exceptionally grandiose in comparison with the more popular everyday scenes chosen by other artists, but his non-classical, non-idealised figuration conveys unmistakable realism.
ARTISTS SINCE 1800
NOTE: The 19th century school of French Realist painting was a prelude to several other modern art movements which appeared during the late 19th century and the 20th century. These movements included: Monet's French Impressionism as well as Dutch Post-Impressionism (Amsterdam and Hague), the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915), the Social Realism school (eg. New York's Ashcan School), the more political school of Socialist Realism (notably in the USSR, c.1928-38), Magic Realism (an offshoot of Surrealism), the hyper-realistic style of Photorealism, and the Chinese school of art known as Cynical Realism (1990s).
During the middle of the nineteenth century in France, the two established schools of French painting, Romanticism and classicism - exemplified by Eugene Delacroix (1798-63) and J.A.D.Ingres (1780-1867) respectively - gave way to a concern for the social value of art and a desire to paint the world as it is. Gustave Courbet, in an exhibition he mounted in 1855, gave this new movement the title of Realism.
Realism was the outcome of many different artistic tendencies in France in the mid-nineteenth century. It developed in part from the Romantic preoccupation with nature. Artists became concerned to represent what was real and true in the life they saw around them, which gave art a new, directly social link - the opposite of art for art's sake.
France was also at this time dominated by the philosophy of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the founder of Positivism, which taught that only those things that can be observed or experienced can be known and believed in - a system which excludes all speculative and metaphysical outlooks. The artist, therefore, was to describe accurately by means of a detailed reproduction the objects of nature as he saw them, rather than involve himself in creating a world from his imagination.
From these viewpoints emerged an art which rejected its time-honoured role of creating an 'ideal' beauty (cute-looking child beggars, clean streets, picturesque landscapes populated by contented peasants, and so on) and looked instead to new subjects from current life to depict, without distorting them in any way.
Gustave Courbet (1819-77) was born at Ornans in the Franche-Comte region of France and went to Paris in 1840 at the age of 21. Early in his career Courbet decided to work on a large scale: "Small pictures do not make a name. I must paint a large picture that will make me decisively known at my true nature. I want all or nothing."
The year 1848 was a time of revolution in France and Europe generally. It also marked the beginning of a crucial period for Courbet. Between 1848 and 1850 he painted four major canvasses, which confirmed him as the father figure of the new pictorial realism: "After Dinner at Ornans"; "The Stone Breakers"; "A Burial at Ornans"; and "Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair".
The critic Theophile Gautier (1811-72) wrote of "After Dinner", which depicts Courbet's father and friends gathered together: "M. Courbet can be ranged with that class of realist who takes advice only from nature. His temperament is male, robust and rustic, but with all the healthy peasant qualities." But Gautier was wrong when he attributed the origin and inspiration of the work solely to nature, for in fact it shows the influence of various artistic traditions deriving from seventeenth-century artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Velazquez (1599-1660). One critic was so provoked by the work that he commented: "No one could drag art in the gutter with greater technical virtuosity." It was not so much Courbet's subject matter as his treatment of it that aroused antipathy. For a genre work (traditionally a small painting, depicting everyday life and surroundings) "After Dinner" was a very large canvas, a specific moment from Courbet's own life on a monumental scale - not an idealized scene from 'the life of the people', but a commonplace social engagement.
With the "Stone Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans", the link between realism and social aims came to the fore. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65), the socialist writer and friend of Courbet, called the "Stone Breakers" the first socialist painting - "a satire on our industrial civilization which continuously invents machines to perform all kinds of labour, and yet is unable to liberate man from the most backbreaking toil." Courbet himself said, however, that he painted the work not for political reasons but because he felt sorry for the stone-breakers. Courbet was sympathetic to social issues, even if he came to see the social implications of his art only when Proudhon pointed them out to him. Proudhon provided Courbet with the political justification of his art - the conviction that he was working for the good of society as well as for his own artistic principles and glory.
The same problem of how far art is intended to carry a social message arises with Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), many of whose works are concerned with human labour. Peasant naturalism had come into prominence in 1848. In the wake of the 1830 Revolution, liberal reformers and art critics had begun to call for a regional French art rather than the totally traditional classical type. Peasant scenes as depicted by artists such as Jules Breton (1827-1906) became acceptable and even respectable. However, with the depopulation of the countryside in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the peasant soon became a controversial political figure.
Millet's work (along with Courbet's) became the focus for new political ideas, although Millet was not militant by nature. He was profoundly moved by the human condition and created an art form to express this and to move others by. Normandy-born, of a prosperous peasant family, he was well read, and after a traditional training he began by painting portraits and mythological works, proceeding to idealized depictions of rural life and from these to rural working scenes. The landscapes of his later years have an almost mystical intensity.
In the Salon of 1850, Millet's "The Sower" was exhibited with Courbet's "Stone Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans". This, along with his subsequent "The Gleaners", aroused much controversy. The themes are not new; Jules Breton and others were already painting peasant scenes which were admired. But the 'stage set' idealization of peasant life common to these works is not found in Millet. He does not paint the peaceful enjoyment of rural life nor depict life on the farm as healthy and contented, but rather as a relentless repetition of tasks, a non-ending struggle for survival.
Because of the political and social upheavals of the day, the struggle between man and his fate, which was the basic concern of Millet, became identified with an outcry against contemporary conditions in society. Millet's own outlook is expressed in a letter of 1851: "It is the human aspect of things, that which is plainly human, that touches me most in art". Joy for Millet was to be found only in "the silence of the forest or near cultivated land." Paradoxically, Millet's paintings, initially seen as representative of social protest, became symbols of permanence in the following decades of rapid social change. The Angelus (1859, Musee d'Orsay) for example, became a symbol of bourgeois values, of the ethic of work and religious piety. His other masterpieces, such The Gleaners (1857, Musee d'Orsay) and Man with a Hoe (1862, J.Paul Getty Museum, LA) were equally realist but devoid of any obvious religious motifs.
Courbet's picture A Burial at Ornans (1850, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) seems to suggest a rejection of such values. One critic commented on the people depicted in the painting: "Is it the painter's fault that material interests, the life of the small town, sordid egotism, provincial snobbishness leave their stamp on the face?" These remarks would not have received much favour with the folk of Ornans. They liked the work. Many members of Courbet's family were depicted in it along with familiar figures of his upbringing within the area. This vast canvas provoked both praise and scorn from its spectators. Death was an integral part of the pictorial tradition when depicted with a sombre sense of an elevated occasion. There is a conspicuous absence of this in Courbet's work - only the freshly dug hole in the ground reminds one of the departed. It was the lack of any seeming respect for man's place in the divine - as opposed to the natural - order that aroused the outcry. Courbet's own grandfather had died in 1848 at the age of 81, and by monumentalizing the commonplace experiences of his personal life, Courbet offended the traditional sense of decorum.
Courbet's huge canvas The Artist's Studio (1855, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) concluded the phase of his career most closely associated with Realism in its more social and political aspects. The landscapes, seascapes, still-lifes, nudes and hunting scenes that followed contain no immediate reference to contemporary events, although they do continue Courbet's sense of the physical and immediate as conveyed through the medium of paint. Courbet's personal life, however, became increasingly political. In 1861 he issued a pamphlet championing the creation of art as a kind of social chronicle. In it he declared that:
His involvement in the Franco-Prussian War was followed by imprisonment, and he finally fled to Switzerland after his part in the Paris Commune - a workers uprising - of 1871.
In the work of Edouard Manet (1832-83), usually seen as Courbet's heir, the social realism of Courbet is transformed into a different kind of realism - to do with impressions of city life. His technique (making use of areas of flat, clear colour and strong, dark outline), when added to the subject-matter he chose, caused an outraged reception from the critics. His "Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (1863), although using a traditional theme, was considered immoral because of the combination of clothed and naked figures, and the obviously contemporary setting. A similar outcry was caused by the nude "Olympia". Manet was primarily concerned with the world of appearances and some of his most beautiful paintings: "Music at the Tuileries" (1862) and "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" (1882) record his impressions of the society he moved in. See also: Impressionist Edouard Manet: "Father of Modernism".
The work of Honore Daumier (1808-79) perhaps does more than Manet's to reflect the rapid, confused complexities of political, social and artistic changes in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. After working as a cartoonist he turned to making lithographs for various journals, producing some 4,000 works of bitter political and social satire. In 1832 he had been imprisoned for a piece of caricature art in the weekly La Caricature, lampooning the king. During this period, he started to make sculptures and caricature busts out of unfired clay, which, apart from being vigorous works in their own right, greatly strengthened his powers of draughtsmanship. In 1835 La Caricature ended and Daumier's association with Le Charivari began. From political cartooning of a specific sort he turned to the mirroring of bourgeois society in all its aspects. Court scenes, actors and artists held a special fascination for him, but whatever the subject or situation, his work has a humanity untouched by any concern for the romantic and picturesque. His pen and ink drawings as well as his paintings illustrated every aspect of human relationships and of the human condition of his day.
Among the many masters of Realist painting, sculpture and printmaking of the 18th/19th century, were the following:
Aivazovsky, Ivan Konstantinovich (1817-1900)