How to identify Realist art?
1. Realist paintings depict the harsh, everyday reality of ordinary people from the middle and lower classes of society, for example, The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet.
2. Realism is a sympathetic portrayal of poor, urban and rural workers in bent postures, struggling with their hard, manual labor, for example, The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet.
3. The bleak paintings feature a palette of dark colors to emphasize the plight of workers. The subjects are shown serious-looking and humble – there’s never a cheerful sentiment – for example, Third Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier.
How Realist art got its name?
Realist art is named after its realistic approach to painting of the observable world, free from imaginary or idealized subject matter. You won’t find mystical landscapes, biblical scenes or Greco-Roman mythological themes. To distinguish this art movement from spin-offs and subgenres that emerged later, sometimes it’s referred to as French Realism or 19th-Century Realism.
What gave rise to Realist art? And where?
Politics and Society
The French Republic established in the aftermath of the earth-shattering revolution of 1789 lasted only until Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1804, declared it an empire. But in 1814, he was forced to abdicate and the much-hated dethroned Bourbon monarchy was restored. This time around it was a constitutional monarchy, not an absolutist one. Nevertheless, eventually a Bourbon king was overthrown in 1830 and replaced by King Louis Philippe I of the House of Orleans. In February 1848, a new revolution broke out and ended the monarchical period, forcing King Louis to abdicate, and a French Second Republic was founded. That 1848 Revolution marked the beginning of a wave of revolutions that engulfed Europe. Such revolutions were inspired by political ideologies (e.g. nationalism, socialism and liberalism) and economic crises. In France, the uprising was fuelled by workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions, among other reasons such as universal male suffrage (voting rights). The socialist camp (included both Radical Republicans and Socialists) among the revolutionaries championed the proletariat demands. That was not surprising given socialist thought had been increasingly gaining ground in Europe for at least two generations, due to the harsh reality of urban and rural workers. Curiously, in the same year, that is 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto – a gospel, to this day, for Socialists and Communists around the world.
The split among French revolutionaries pitted liberal moderate republicans against Radical Republicans and Socialists. While most of the French favored some social reforms, they were rather anti-socialist. The tension turned into an armed, bloody conflict and the socialist uprising was ultimately crushed. Despite their dramatic failure, the concerns for the working class inspired many artists and writers, who sympathized with the left-leaning revolutionaries and some of them were wholeheartedly socialist like Realist art pioneer Gustave Courbet.
Realist artists believed they should tackle social issues of modern life and turn their art into a truthful reflection on the plight of ordinary people. They witnessed the radical changes to modern life during the 1800s as the Industrial Revolution progressed, and found the poor and working classes to be a more worthy subject for artistic depiction. Hence, in Realist paintings, you won’t find anybody having fun, flirting or dressed elegantly – only the mundane, everyday activities of humble, anonymous people at home or at work. Most often the work was a menial labor at a factory or at a farm.
Another source of influence was technology. The daguerreotype photographic process, invented in Paris in 1839, signaled the birth of photography, which would have an everlasting influence on the art of painting. Many Realist artists painted directly from the photographs.
Realism didn’t have a great effect on architecture and had only a limited presence in sculpture. However, it was significantly present in literature, for example, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.
Rebels of a New Generation
Realist artists were not interested in the past, or in anything that they didn’t personally experience. That was summed up in a quote by the patriarch of the movement, Gustave Courbet: “I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one.” Art that preceded them, in their view, was simply false. Nowhere will you find in Realist art biblical scenes as in Baroque art, mythological themes as in Rococo art, or mythical heroes and historical battles as in Neoclassical art. Unlike the Romantics, who painted mystical nature, the Realists saw only urban wasteland. Their focus was on the lower class and their dire conditions of work. That approach was ground-breaking because even when the poor were previously present in paintings, as in the Academic art style, they were glorified and shown living an idealized life. Devoid of history, literature, religion or mythology, the artist’s focus was on contemporary social issues. The heroic portrayal of the working class was seen as a political agenda and their art style was rightly regarded anti-authoritarian. The Realists were both artists and social activists.
Realism rebelled against the conventional and academic rules of art, which were promoted by the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. In that academy, artists received their artistic training, and later their paintings could be displayed in the Academy’s Salon. But Realism was one of the “radical” art styles which did not conform to the academy’s standards. When Gustave Courbet, had his artwork repeatedly rejected, he had to start his own exhibition, making him “the first artist ever to stage a private exhibition of his own work.”
The emergence of photography brought a decline in landscape paintings, portrait paintings and miniatures which were replaced with photographs. The three centuries-old custom of sitting for hours in front of an artist, à la Mona Lisa, was no longer required or in demand. The story is familiar to us, new technology brought an end to the careers of many people, however the Realist artists still found in photography an inspiration. Their art was not mimicry of photographs, but an accurate, unadorned report on modern life in the nineteenth-century.