"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."
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Émile Zola Signature
"So, after the literary schools that wanted to give us a distorted, superhuman, poetic, touching, charming, or proud vision of life, the realist or naturalist school came, which sought to show us the truth, nothing but the truth and the whole truth."
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Guy de Maupassant
"Realism aims at an exact, complete and honest reproduction of the social environment, of the age in which the author lives, because such studies are justified by reason, by the demands made by public interest and understanding, and because they are free from falsehood and deception. This reproduction should be as simple as possible so that all may understand it."
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Edmond Duranty
"[They] call me 'the socialist painter.' I accept that title with pleasure. I am not only a socialist but a democrat and a Republican as well - in a word, a partisan of all the revolution and above all a Realist...for 'Realist' means a sincere lover of the honest truth."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of Realism is its negation of the ideal."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"One must be of one's time and paint what one sees."
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Édouard Manet Signature
"It is the treating of the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime that gives to art its true power."
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Jean-François Millet Signature
"The big artist keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools."
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Thomas Eakins Signature

Summary of Realism

Though never a coherent group, Realism is recognized as the first modern movement in art, which rejected traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization as outmoded in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in France in the 1840s, Realism revolutionized painting, expanding conceptions of what constituted art. Working in a chaotic era marked by revolution and widespread social change, Realist painters replaced the idealistic images and literary conceits of traditional art with real-life events, giving the margins of society similar weight to grand history paintings and allegories. Their choice to bring everyday life into their canvases was an early manifestation of the avant-garde desire to merge art and life, and their rejection of pictorial techniques, like perspective, prefigured the many 20th-century definitions and redefinitions of modernism.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Realism is broadly considered the beginning of modern art. Literally, this is due to its conviction that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for art. Philosophically, Realism embraced the progressive aims of modernism, seeking new truths through the reexamination and overturning of traditional systems of values and beliefs.
  • Realism concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically, and culturally in the mid-19th century. This led to unflinching, sometimes "ugly" portrayals of life's unpleasant moments and the use of dark, earthy palettes that confronted high art's ultimate ideals of beauty.
  • Realism was the first explicitly anti-institutional, nonconformist art movement. Realist painters took aim at the social mores and values of the bourgeoisie and monarchy upon who patronized the art market. Though they continued submitting works to the Salons of the official Academy of Art, they were not above mounting independent exhibitions to defiantly show their work.
  • Following the explosion of newspaper printing and mass media in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as self-publicist. Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and others purposefully courted controversy and used the media to enhance their celebrity in a manner that continues among artists to this day.

Overview of Realism

Detail of <i>A Burial At Ornans</i> (1849-50) by Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet said he painted his hometown's "mayor, who weighs 400, the parish priest, the justice of the peace, the cross bearer, the notary Marlet, the assistant mayor, my friends, my father, the choirboys, the grave digger, two old revolutionaries" to depict the funeral of his great-uncle in his Burial at Ornans (1849-51) - thus painting his reality. When exhibited the painting created such an uproar and launched Realism, that the artist said later, "Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."

Key Artists

  • Gustave Courbet was a French painter and chief figure in the Realist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. His paintings often contained an emotional bleakness, and were praised for their precision and use of light. Along with Delacroix, Courbet was a key influence on the Impressionists.
  • Millet was the Realist co-founder of the Barbizon School near Paris. He is especially known for his depictions rural life and peasant labor that had a large influence on later modernists.
  • Édouard Manet was a French painter and a prominent figure in the mid-nineteenth-century Realist movement of French art. Manet's paintings are considered among the first works of art in the modern era, due to his rough painting style and absence of idealism in his figures. Manet was a close friend of and major influence on younger artists who founded Impressionism such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
  • James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
  • John Singer Sargent was the premiere portraitist of his generation, well-known for his depictions of high society figures in Paris, London, and New York. He updated a centuries-old tradition in order to capture his sitters' character and even reputation.
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Do Not Miss

  • Named after the village of Barbizon, France where the artists gathered, the group of outdoor, Naturalist painters included Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-Francois Millet.
  • A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
  • Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.

Important Art and Artists of Realism

Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834 (1834)

Artist: Honoré Daumier

Even before Realism began as a coherent trend in the 1840s, Daumier's prints and caricatures engaged with the social injustices that would color the works of Courbet and others. Insurrection against the monarchy of Louis Philippe I reached a boiling point in April 1834, and a police officer was killed during a riot in a working-class neighborhood. In retaliation, government forces brutally massacred the residents of the building where the killer was believed to be hiding. In Rue Transnonain, Daumier revealed government excess with an emotionally provocative image showing the aftermath of the government's grossly disproportionate reaction, focused on the corpse of an unarmed civilian lying atop the body of his dead child. This topical, straight-from-the-headlines print denouncing the monarchy participates in Realism's assault on traditional power structures.

A Burial at Ornans (1849-50)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

With A Burial at Ornans, Courbet made his name synonymous with the young Realist movement. By depicting a simple rural funeral service in the town of his birth, Courbet accomplished several things. First, he made a painting of a mundane topic with unknown people (each attendee is given a personalized portrait) on a scale traditionally reserved for history painting. Second, he eschewed any spiritual value beyond the service; the painting, often compared to El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), leaves out El Greco's depiction of Christ and the heavens. Third, Courbet's gritty depiction showed the fashionable Salon-goers of Paris their new political equals in the country, as the 1848 Revolution had established universal male suffrage. Artistically, Courbet legendarily stated, "A Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism," opening up a new visual style for an increasingly modern world.

The Stone Breakers (1849-50)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

At the same Salon of 1850-51 where he made waves with A Burial at Ornans, Courbet also exhibited The Stone Breakers. In the painting, which shows two workers, one young, one old, Courbet presented both a Realist snapshot of everyday life and an allegory on the nature of poverty. While the image was inspired by a scene of two men creating gravel for roads, one of the least-paying, most backbreaking jobs imaginable, Courbet rendered his figures faceless as to make them anonymous stand-ins for the lowest orders of French society. More attention is given to their dirty, tattered work clothes, their strong, weathered hands, and their relationship to the land than to their recognizability. They are, however, monumental in size and shown with a quiet dignity befitting their willingness to do the unseen, unsung labor upon which modern life was built.

Useful Resources on Realism

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Realism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Mar 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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