The Age of Realism—Art History

Romanticism, 1750–1850, did not die out completely yet tinkered off, while artists continued to pursue romantics ways of viewing the world into the twentieth century. By 1830, there was a rise of a new movement of nineteenth century Realism, which called into question the over-emphasis of passions, irrationality, and subjectivity of the Romantics. Realists wanted a return to an objective framework that was more empirical and systematic, which followed philosopher Comte’s positivism of “promot[ing] science as the mind’s highest achievement and advocate[ing] a purely empirical approach to nature and society” (798).

Realism was characterized by the need to be current, dealing with contemporary issues and social realities of the day. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, spreading throughout the continent, and social relations were different. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels was published in 1848. This writing showed the history of class struggle and how those who controlled the means of production—the bourgeoisie—therefore controlled those who worked—the proletariat. Recognizing the reality for the average human became bleak: “man is compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (1331). Ultimately, realism raised the idea of modernity, changing how artists saw the world and their own art.

Landseer’s The Stone Breaker and His Daughter represents the view of academic realism or appealing to the pallet of the bourgeoisie.

The Stone Breaker and His Daughter (image from here)

The viewer has access to the faces. Here a father is relaxed and resting, while a daughter brings lunch to him of wine, fruit, and bread. Their dress is nice with differing colors. The lighting is brighter and beautiful, picturesque even. The setting shows more of the sky and natural world. This social environment of happy peasants is not the alienation that Marx would suggest. The vision of the working class life here is one that the middle class, wishing after the simpler life, would be comfortable seeing—thus romanticizing realism.

In contrast to academic realism, Courbet’s The Stonebreakers (c. 1849) suggests avant-garde realism, where the artist advances the cause of art, perhaps at the risk of sacrificing fame and fortune. The canvas here is less beautiful, murky, and monochromatic. The quality is dull, and the finish is matte. Because of the loose brushstrokes, the composition seems rough and has a sense of randomness. This painting was shown in the Salon 1848, one year after expelling King Louis Phillip and the agitation of the proletariat. The museum-goers, the bourgeoisie, were confronted with their material existence and forced to look at individuals and their harsh realities. These figures were from the Paris countryside, repairing the roads, and “By juxtaposing youth and age, Courbet suggested that those born to poverty remain poor their entire lives” (798). This work was extremely menial, but the artist seems to give needed dignity back to the individuals. Without any idealization, realism is seen here by the terse figures wearing torn clothing, revealing dirty skin, and having shoes in a wretched state. Work here is not beautifully idyllic. There is little blue sky, almost used purely to taunt the figures. Additionally, the figures faces are hidden—could they be plotting? By pushing the figures to the front of the picture plane, the viewers have to look and confront the figures with their sense of reality. Realist art, therefore, was used to attempt to change society.

The Stonebreakers (image from here)

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who “refused to be limited to the contemporary scenes strict Realists portrayed” (809), was a group of artists who were unhappy with the art being painted at this time and thought that art did not seem true, sincere, or real. They rebelled against the academy by looking at art made prior to Raphael. Yet Millias’s art seemed to still follow traces of Realism: “So painstakingly careful was Millias in his study of visual facts closely observed from nature that Charles Baudelaire . . . called him ‘the poet of meticulous detail’” (809).

Millias’s Christ in the House of His Parents (c. 1848) reveals realism as the truth the artist wants to get to. The models did not come from the academy but from the streets. Dickens’s scathing review criticized that the scene was too real, too naturalistic, veering toward sacrilegious. The hair color of Christ and Mary is auburn, which would appeal to the redheads of the British audience. This would create greater accessibility, making it more real for the audience to connect with the paintings.

Christ in the House of His Parents (image from here)

Advances in science and technology changed society as well as art. The reality of science, including Darwin’s evidence of natural selection, evolution, and the idea that “[m]an still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (1322), shook many people’s faith.

Charles Darwin (image from here)

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London, England (c. 1850–51) looks like a modern cathedral yet an ode to science. It was built in only six months but used so much glass it literally glowed in the sunlight. The exterior had classical elements: “The plan borrowed much from ancient Roman and Christian basilicas, with a central flat-roofed ‘nave’ and a barrel-vaulted crossing ‘transept’” (813). The visitor was brought through the central nave or passage, and the actual movement of going down the center. It was a place where people go to see and to be seen. Here this new building suggested the new reality, showing what people worshiped now and what they prayed to, sought after, and found inspiration in all kinds of modern equipment. The Crystal Palace became the spectacle of modernity or modern experience.

Crystal Palace (image from here)

Rosa Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais (c. 1849) depicts another example of realism according to how the bourgeoisie would have liked. Bonheur was the best-celebrated, nineteenth-century French artist, and “[a] Realist passion for accuracy in painting drove Bonheur, but she resisted depicting problematic social and political situations seen in the work of Courbet, Millet, Daumier, and other Realists” (803). Her art was seen as commemorating France. No flies, sweat, or manure are shown here, but rather it is a very sanitized representation of plowing. The earth is rich and realistically painted. The eyes of the animals gaze directly out to the viewer. The land and animals she painted celebrate all that is beautiful and good in life as well as French national identity.

Plowing in the Nivernais (image from here)

The lure of order, reason, and categorization in art continued into the 1870s. This time was a critical moment of formation of self, identity, economic sources, and nations. Later, realism would transfer into an emphasis on nationalism that would change the world after the “War to End all Wars” would occur.

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2 thoughts on “The Age of Realism—Art History

  1. This was a lengthy read but informative. You described art history in a manner that was easy to follow and held my interest. I have definitely learned a lot from your post 🙂

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