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Realism Collage

Realism

Started: 1840s

Ended: 1880s

Realism Timeline

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The Barbizon School
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Impressionism
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Social Realism

KEY ARTISTS

Gustave CourbetGustave Courbet
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Jean-François MilletJean-François Millet
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Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
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James WhistlerJames Whistler
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John Singer SargentJohn Singer Sargent
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Thomas EakinsThomas Eakins
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More Top Artists
More Top Artists

"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."

Émile Zola 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

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

Important Art and Artists of Realism Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in Realism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Realism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Honoré Daumier: Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834 (1834)
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Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834 (1834)

Artist: Honoré Daumier

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Lithograph on paper - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Gustave Courbet: A Burial at Ornans (1849-50)
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A Burial at Ornans (1849-50)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay

Gustave Courbet: The Stone Breakers (1849-50)
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The Stone Breakers (1849-50)

Artist: Gustave Courbet

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - Destroyed by bombing in Dresden during World War II

More Realism Artwork and Analysis:

Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners (1857) Édouard Manet: Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1862-63) James Whistler: Symphony in White, no. 1 (The White Girl) (1861-62) Édouard Manet: Olympia (1863) Ilya Repin: Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic (1875) Jules Breton: Song of the Lark (1884)
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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" 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. Information
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