Realism was a movement in nineteenth century Western culture that claimed to represent ordinary people and their everyday reality based on accurate observation. It challenged centuries of tradition when the highest art aspired to idealized pictorial forms and heroic subjects. Supporters considered its visual veracity to be an indication of an artist's "sincerity." Realism acquired a democratic political dimension from its inclusiveness and the accessibility of its imagery to ordinary people unversed in the classics but capable of recognizing "truth." Its moral appeal was informed by progressive attitudes and an empirical concept of knowledge. Social theory and scientific epistemology, as in the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Auguste Comte (1798–1857), converged in what was called Positivism. The leader of artistic Realism was the French painter, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). Its advent revolutionized the history of art.
The artistic movement Realism must be distinguished from "realism"—the latter an aspect of most figurative art throughout time. In its general meaning, the word can refer to optical realism (in which forms or details are based on nature, as in Pre-Raphaelitism or Photo-Realism); psychological realism (in which sometimes distorted forms convey emotion, as in Expressionism); or illusionism (in which careful technique makes even imagined forms seem present, as in Surrealism). Realism paralleled the invention of photography in 1839, which introduced a new standard for optical realism while also being a technological response to the same conditions as artistic Realism. A later term, Naturalism, was developed as a more scientific-sounding, less politicized alternative by the novelist Emile Zola and the art critic Jules Castagnary.
Realism's most coherent artistic manifestation was in mid-nineteenth century France. It followed Romanticism, which encouraged artistic freedom and self-expression, looking to nature as their source. In his Realist Manifesto, Courbet stated his aim as: "to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own appreciation." Linking faithful portrayal of his times with artistic independence (from teachings based on imitations of classical art), he made both elements the basis for the movement of which he became the undisputed leader.
In the 1840s, Courbet's generation drew on two related artistic trends. First was the Barbizon School of landscape painters, who studied people and places from a recognizable countryside, usually near Paris. Second was the recent popularity in literature and art of provincial and rural life. As a contrast to urban materialism and its inequities, the virtues and innocence of country folk were extolled in novels by George Sand and stories by Courbet's friend Champfleury (Jules Husson). Painters such as the Leleux brothers and Jean-François Millet embodied this ethos in their representations of peasants. In addition, simple, often crude folk art and poetry were admired as naïve expressions of popular culture and the working class.
The difference between Courbet and these artists was that, beginning with his Stonebreakers (1849, Dresden, Kunstmuseum, destroyed, World War II), Courbet's people, places, and activities appeared specifically contemporary, devoid of anti-modern nostalgia, whereas his predecessors evoked a timelessness associated with Romantic innocence and virtue. Courbet's workers alluded to the harsh conditions of the 1840s, when failing harvests drove many off the land into day-wage labor. They were providing raw materials for modern infrastructure—roads, railroads, housing, and industry. Courbet's direction was encouraged by the left-wing Revolution of 1848, and thereafter his work was associated with Socialism.
A Burial at Ornans (Paris, Musée d'Orsay) painted in 1850, showed a ceremony outside Courbet's hometown in the region of Franche-Comté, near Switzerland. Against their rugged landscape, some thirty odd friends and neighbors gather at the open grave of a respected citizen. Courbet portrays death as a prosaic, literally "down-to-earth" event whose meaning goes no further than laying the body in the ground. Lacking the traditional apparatus of pictorial composition or religious interpretation, Courbet's picture would normally have been considered a genre painting—lower on the scale of values than academic history painting. His rows of mourners seemed merely additive rather than dramatically coherent, hence related to folk imagery. Yet the huge canvas with life-sized figures flaunted Courbet's challenge to assumptions about what was worthy of large-scale artistic representation, and his ostensibly coarse technique evoked a worker's handicraft. Both the Stonebreakers and the Burial earned Courbet heated criticism, making him a public figure and Realism a powerful force.
In 1855, Courbet challenged authority in a solo exhibition outside the grounds of the Universal Exposition of 1855. The central painting in his "Realist Pavilion" was The Painter's Studio (Paris, Musée d'Orsay) in which he showed himself at the easel, supported by friends on the right and facing on the left a mix of figures embodying various ideas he considered outdated. The purpose of this much-interpreted painting was a declaration of artistic freedom, accompanied by the "Realist Manifesto," mentioned earlier.
Elsewhere, Courbet declared "Realism is the negation of the ideal" and that through it, he would "arrive at freedom." He saw Realism as a liberation of human consciousness from false ideology in order to take control of one's destiny. His ideas drew on the writings of his countryman and acquaintances, the radical philosopher Proudhon, who introduced materialist social thought to France in the 1840s, at the same time as Karl Marx's early writing.
Realism was associated with Impressionism when the latter first appeared, since Impressionism took up the commitment to modern life and contemporary surroundings. Edouard Manet was guided by these principles, although he looked to the example of Spanish realism and concentrated on urban leisure rather than rural labor. The young Claude Monet was friendly with and drew upon Courbet and his technique, as did several other Impressionists. But the greater legacy of Realism was to free artists to paint "sincerely,"—from their personal vision. Realism successfully undermined doctrinal academicism by legitimizing images of modern life, heroic or anecdotal, rural or urban, and painted as the artist chose. Realism even entered sculpture, as in the work of Jules Dalou.
The response of establishment artists was to employ their labor toward a finished optical realism, as in Léon Bonnat, or to incorporate occasional free paint handling, as did Jules Bastien-Lepage. In other countries, Realism reinforced existing trends in genre painting, as in Holland (such as Jozef Israëls) and England. I Macchiaoli in Italy paralleled Realism and Impressionism, especially in outdoor scenes. Verismo in opera followed later. In Germany, where Courbet was popular, Realist images acquired a grander scale and avant-garde technique, as in William Leibl and Max Liebermann. The United States adopted Realism, as in Thomas Eakins, then Impressionism, as national styles, though usually without the avant-garde connotations. Later Realisms were often ostentatious, as in Richard Estes's displays of photograph-like technique, or Eric Fischl's Suburban Psycho-Realism.
Courbet's militancy during the Paris Commune led to exile in Switzerland, where he died. In an effort to rehabilitate him, writers even during his lifetime minimized Realism's politics in favor of an aesthetic of the sincere and natural eye. Around the mid-twentieth century, Meyer Schapiro and Linda Nochlin pointed out the historical origins of Realism, with its links to popular imagery and Dutch art implying its democratic cast. Nochlin's general book on Realism remains the standard. In the mid 1970s, Marxist art historian T. J. Clark's work on Courbet and his contemporaries faced the political issues directly, launching a revitalization in art history referred to as the Social History of Art. Since then, various noted scholars have sought to rehabilitate as Realists the many painters of contemporary life who were overshadowed by Courbet.
Whatever its manifestations, Realism continues to have a grip on consciousness thanks to its claim to represent "reality" more truthfully than other forms of art.
James H. Rubin
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