Progression of Art
Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834
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
A Burial at Ornans
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
The Stone Breakers
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
Part of a "trilogy" of paintings celebrating France's rural denizens, The Gleaners serves as something of a feminine pendant to Courbet's The Stone Breakers (1849-50). Gleaning was perhaps the lowest form of work for women in French society, a practice wherein female peasants were allowed to comb the fields after the harvest, "gleaning" bits of grain that were left behind to take home for food; hours of hunched-over labor would often be rewarded with a small amount of meal. Millet certainly meant for the painting to call attention to the plight of the rural poor. Nevertheless, Millet's women are tied visually to the land, their bowed bodies glance the horizon, suggesting a quiet dignity and sense of belonging. Despite the calm warmth with which his subject is portrayed, Millet received intense criticism for The Gleaners from a wealthy art public to whom the painting spoke to contemporary concerns about the possibility of violent Socialist revolution by an exploited proletariat.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
After Courbet's succès de scandale at the Salon of 1850-51, Manet was the next major Realist artist to actively court controversy. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, exhibited at the Salon des Refusés of 1863, did so with its rendering of a pair of well-dressed Parisian dandies entertaining two women - one naked, one semi-naked - at an outdoor picnic. Indeed, Le déjeuner was connected with prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne, a park where male middle-class city dwellers went with hired escorts. Beyond the social scandal created by this lascivious scene of mixed company, Manet's combination of a figural group borrowed from several Old Master works with the flattened snapshot aesthetic of Realism infuriated many art critics. Manet called attention to the false refinement of wealthy Parisian society, with nudes available in its museums and naked call girls in its forests, while creating a work that modernized classic painting. His distortion of perspective, a refusal to follow the Renaissance model of the canvas as a "window onto the world," laid the groundwork for the formal experimentation of Impressionism and later movements.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay
Symphony in White, no. 1 (The White Girl)
Though Whistler is considered among the Realist artists due to his direct style of painting and rejection of academic standards, he stands out as an outspoken advocate for "art for art's sake." Whistler declared openly that "art should be independent of all claptrap - should stand alone... and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like." Rather than making social statements, he gave his works titles like Symphony in White, using musical terms to suggest harmonious arrangements within a dominant "key." This idea prefigured connections drawn between music and abstract art in the 20th century by artists like Georges Braque and Wassily Kandinsky. Critics, however, still chose to read meaning into Symphony in White, claiming that the girl's disheveled hair and dropped bouquet represented a loss of innocence or virginity. For his part, Whistler resented the idea that his art carried hidden content outside of what was on the canvas.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Manet capitalized on the publicity generated by his scandalous Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1862-63) by exhibiting Olympia at the Salon of 1865. He modeled Olympia compositionally on Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), which has been described alternately as either a wedding portrait of a young bride or a sort of "elite pornography": the depiction of a high-class courtesan. Given either interpretation, Manet's painting was quite clearly that of a prostitute, identified by the orchid in her hair and her various baubles, stark in its contrast between her flat, pale flesh and the dark background of her small room. The unapologetic, confrontational gaze with which she addresses the viewer (from above) was certainly meant by Manet to challenge French society's hypocritical notions of propriety, in an admittedly incendiary fashion.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay
Barge Haulers on the Volga
The political resonance of Realism had a powerful effect on art outside of France, as artists from across Europe and beyond used it to call attention to social inequality in their own countries. Ilya Repin became the most celebrated painter of his time in Russia for his sympathetic depictions of peasant traditions and low-class labor. Following Tsar Alexander II's 1861 reforms, which emancipated over 22 million serfs, Russian artists began to tailor art toward the edification of the lower classes. In Barge Haulers on the Volga, a team of poor, downtrodden workers pull a ship upstream. Yoked almost like farm animals, they are shown to be destitute and demoralized, but powerful, and Repin was critically praised for his depiction of the strength of the Russian spirit. The men center around a younger figure, who activates the painting by stepping out of line, indicating the possibility of heroic escape from lower-class toil. Repin thus achieved a very difficult balance: he pleased the Tsar while locating utopian potential in the exploited world of rural labor. Barge Haulers stands as a prefiguration of these very tensions that would explode in Russia in the early-20th century.
Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
The Gross Clinic
Eakins's eight-foot-tall portrait of the surgeon and professor Samuel Gross is a masterpiece of American Realism. Its direct portrayal of the blood and viscera of his patient's open body updated the false cleanliness and decorum of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) with uncompromising realism. Submitted for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the painting was deemed too graphic to exhibit, though even its detractors conceded its vigor and power. Eakins, in many ways, was the fountainhead of Realism in the United States, coming as he did after the Romantic landscape tradition of the Hudson River School. The next-generation Realist painters of the Ashcan School were largely from Eakins's hometown of Philadelphia and were undoubtedly influenced by his strength of objectivity, observation, and representation.
Oil on canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Song of the Lark
One of the most famous works of French Realism, Jules Breton's Song of the Lark received broad acclaim as a less confrontational, more widely accepted version of Realist painting. Breton's late-century Realism carries a hint of poetic allegory, as the lark is traditionally a symbol for daybreak. His peasant woman stands in the middle of a field, holding a scythe, while the sun rises on the horizon. The soft colors of the sky create a beautiful backdrop for the strong-willed, barefoot farmworker. Breton's glorification of hard work made the painting extremely popular in his home country as an emblem of French fortitude and as one of pious hard work in the largely Protestant, Reconstruction-era United States. Indeed, his paintings of single peasant women in fields became so popular that Breton had prints made of many of them and occasionally produced painted copies.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago