In the middle of the 19th century, around 50 years after Romanticism came about, artists in Europe adopted a new style of art making. This was called Realism. It was characterized by an unprecedented attention to everyday subject matter and it is an art movement that transformed the western art world. Realism emerged in France in the 1850s on the heels of the 1848 French Revolution, which was an event that established the “right to work” in the country. It introduced the idea that the average, everyday working class person was considered a worthy artistic subject. As was the ordinary, day to day working scenes of the contemporary French lifestyle. Some artists associated with the movement were Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, John Sargent and Honore Daumier. The style was later taken up and adapted by French Impressionists like Edgar Degas.
Artists who worked in the Realist style rejected the standards that Romanticism put forth. Romanticism was a genre defined by emotion and drama and featured mythological figures and awe-inspiring scenes of nature. Either way, Romanticism glorified the subject matter, which is a trait that the Realists threw away. They valued the image as a whole, a representation of the real and the raw. There was no drama, no mysticism and the only emotion that was present was the gritty reality of the working class.
One of the key concepts to remember here is that Realism is all about class. It is important to remember that throughout history, the middle class didn’t always exist. There was the aristocracy (the rich landowners with powdered faces and fancy wigs) and then there was everyone else, usually the ones working their lives away on land owned by the aristocracy. The 19th century saw the rise of the middle class, thanks to industrialization, a peasant could, over time, become a wealthy merchant and start living a little more comfortably. Society was changing, social structures were being transformed and Realism reflected these changes.
Realism directly inspired prominent contemporary art movements like Photorealism and Hyper-realism. It was a revolution to painting and expanded the conceptions of what constituted art. Up until this point, art was about highlighting great and important things. Historic moments, kings and queens, biblical stories and the occasional merchant’s wife. The subject matter was portrayed as being worthy of reverence. The choice from the Realists to bring everyday life into their canvases was a desire to merge art and life, ordinary, everyday life. It is quite broadly considered the beginning of modern art and it is because of this urge to paint the ordinary and the conviction that it was worth something.
There was a larger, overreaching concern for Realism and it was more than laying the subject bare on the canvas. It concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically and culturally in the mid-19th century. This is what led to the unflinching, sometimes “ugly” portrayals of life’s unpleasant truths. They also tended to use dark, earthy palette tones that also confronted the ideals of high art and beauty.
The invention and subsequent explosion of newspaper printing and mass media that came with the Industrial Revolution brought with it a new mode of publicity for artists. Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as a self-publicist. Many artists purposefully danced along the line of controversy and used this new media to enhance their celebrity status. It is something that is still very much done today.
Art Realism in France was an outcome of a nationwide desire for democracy. Simultaneously, England’s version of art realism depicted the rebuttal of Victorian materialism and the classicism that came with it. Much like Romanticism, Realism was not subject to fine art alone. Many authors, particularly, but even some musicians, adopted the style as a means to portray their own art through a cleaner lens. Through both art and literature, there are still some core concepts that separate the movement from other genres of art. The language used was transparent and this was true for literature and painting. There was no attempt to hide behind hidden meanings and flowery words and imagery. There was a certain verisimilitude in Realism. Verisimilitude is just an over the top word for “truthfulness”. Realist literature and art were famous for the way it tried to create a world that seemed real or true. Realist artists and writers wanted us to believe we were watching real life unfold on the page or canvas. There was an emphasis on the individual or the “character”. Even through art, the characters were portrayed in extreme detail. In writing, this meant that there was an emphasis on describing, analyzing and dramatizing personality. Its good to remember that when Realism was emerging, psychology as a discipline was also emerging.
In many ways, Realism was almost a direct contradiction to Romanticism. As we spoke about in the previous post, the Romanticists had a particular interest in the mythological figure and the individual independent from society. The Realists chose to focus on social networks and the individuals place within these social networks as opposed to a single grand hero. This quote by Emile Zemo sums up the overarching themes of Realism very well. “It is not a question, here, of searching for an ‘absolute’ of beauty. The artist is neither painting history nor his soul… And it is because of this that he should neither be judged as a moralist nor as a literary man. He should be judged simply as a painter.”