1848 – Present
Realism has less to do with the photorealistic painting of images and has more to do with realistic subject matter. Photorealism does play a part, but it is not always present in the paintings of Realism art.
The Realists were speaking out against the excessively fantastical trends in Romanticism that put the dramatic where it wasn’t genuine, but ignored the dramatic in the realities of the world. They also disliked the romanticized portrayal of historical events in History Paintings, a movement that painted overly dramatic, even melodramatic, scenes from split second moments in history.
The Realists strove to show the world as it really is through painting the truth of common situations in the lives of ordinary people. They did not flatter and they did not shy away from uncomfortable subjects, including no aim to paint the rich any differently than the poor.
Origins and Historical Importance:
The world of the mid-19th century was one of intense change, seeing the advent of industrialization, the agricultural machine, and the increase in populations moving from rural areas into the cities. Realism first began in literature, somewhat in response to what was happening, as in the case of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Realism became connected to the visual arts when the French novelist Champfleury, who edited the publication Le Realisme, promoted the work of the painter Gustave Courbet in his own publication, Le Pamphlet in 1848. Several years later, when Courbet had been rejected for exhibition, he displayed anyway, displaying a sign that read “Le Realisme.”
In what may have been considered a bold move by those that venerated historical and mythical figures, Courbet used large canvasses that were typically reserved for history paintings. He painted in enormous scale and vivid detail the lives of common peasants in a space normally reserved for society’s most revered historical characters.
The ideology behind the movement was, of course, felt by other painters and artists that became part of the movement. This also spread into other movements as well, particularly the subject matter, as can be seen in the subjects of some Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and then later in the Dada and other modern art movements.
More immediately, it spread to other countries. A group called the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) popped up in Russia in the 1860s with Ilya Repin, and American Realism featured such artists such as James Abbot McNeill Whistler (and his famous mother) and George Bellows.
The proponents of Realism, namely its most famous artists, were often in trouble over their sometimes subversive works. Honore Daumier, in addition to his personal pursuits, was also a lithographer. He often satirized political and social figures in unflattering light in major publications. He was jailed after printing a picture of the French King on the commode. Courbet was jailed for his protest and destruction of the Vendome Column in France. His statement of warning about it is just short of saucy sarcasm, “In as much as the Vendôme column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column.”
Although Realism in its prime took on social and political undertones, by the time the Impressionists arrived it had mostly dissipated in intensity. However, it left a lasting legacy of truth and emotional sincerity in art that would last into our own time.
- Realists preferred subject matter of common life and often sought out the ‘ideal’ French working landscape, night clubs, and what the upper class would have thought of as sordid and tawdry subjects. This inclination of realism would later be used in the work of the Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
- Realism eschewed the idea of the ideal as had been seen in the denied musculature of the Classic and Neo-Classic, the elongated exaggerated necks seen as beautiful during the Renaissance. They found freedom in painting what was actually in front of them.
- Realism has spread and splintered into off shoots into our modern day and include American Realism, Social Realism, Socialist Realism, American Scene Painting, Hyperrealism, Photorealism, and Illusionistic Realism amongst others. Strangely, considering the initial reasons for realism, two odd movements are tied to realism – Surrealism and Magic Realism.
- The actual name of the painting known as Whistler’s Mother is titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.
- Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 the same year that Champfleury acknowledged Courbet in Le Pamphlet. The two are not directly related, but the Communist Manifesto did encourage the proletariat to rise up, and that is not entirely unrelated to the Realist’s desire to end the glorification of the upper classes in artwork.