I may not know art, but I know what I like: 19th Century Realist Art

Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art.  Such a short word, yet so complicated.  I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art.  I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far.  Maybe it will be helpful to you as well!The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.”  In  the many parts of this series so far I’ve looked at art up to around 1800.   In this post I’m going to look at the artistic movement called 19th Century Realism.  Realism started in France, following the Revolution of 1848.  It was especially popular in France and Russia.Realist art is named after its realistic approach to painting of the observable world, free from imaginary or idealized subject matter.  You won’t find mystical landscapes, biblical scenes or Greco-Roman mythological themes here.  In fact, the Realists completely rejected all art that came before them.Realist artists were not interested in the past, or in anything that they didn’t personally experience. That was summed up in a quote by the leader of the movement, Gustave Courbet: “I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one.”The Realists were both artists and social activists.  They wanted their art to be a truthful reflection of the lives of ordinary people.  They had seen the massive changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and wanted to make social statements about how the Industrial Revolution  (and all the change and upheaval it brought) affected the the poor and working classes.  So in Realist paintings you won’t find anybody having fun, flirting or dressed elegantly – only the mundane, everyday activities of humble, anonymous people at home or at work.  Most often the work was the manual labor of the farm or the factory.

Realism rebelled against the conventional and academic rules of art, which were promoted by the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Only painters that followed the rules were allowed to exhibit in the Académie’s “Salon” (and thus have any hope of selling their work).  But Realist artists were considered “radical”, did not conform to the academy’s standards and therefore weren’t allowed to exhibit their works.  The Realist painter Gustave Courbet had his artwork repeatedly rejected by the Académie, and in 1863 the Académie rejected more than two-thirds of the paintings submitted to them.  These included works by Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro.

There was a great public outcry about these rejections, and eventually Emperor Napoleon III himself stepped in and declared that these “unacceptable” works should have a public viewing.  This led to the now-famous Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects), which was very popular and attracted a lot of attention.  This was the first time that “outsiders” were allowed to exhibit publicly in France, and it was an important event, because it paved the way for the later Impressionists.  Without the Realists, the Impressionists might never have been able to have a chance to exhibit their art.

So what are the characteristics of Realist painting?  First of all, Realist paintings depict the harsh, everyday reality of ordinary people from the middle and lower classes of society.  Realism is a sympathetic portrayal of workers in bent postures, struggling with their hard, manual labor.  The paintings tend to be bleak, featuring a palette of dark colors to emphasize the plight of workers. The subjects are shown serious-looking and humble – there’s never a cheerful sentiment.

Realism had a significant affect on 19th century literature.  Works like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times used the same themes as the Realist painters.

And now (finally!) to the art.  Here are some of my favorite Realist works

          The Stone Breakers, 1849, Gustave Courbet, stolen by the Nazis, destroyed in an allied bombing attack near Dresden in 1945

What is called Vagrancy, 1855, Alfred Stevens, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The Gleaners, 1857, Jean-François Millet, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The Third-Class Carriage, 1862-1864, Honoré Daumier, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-73, Ilya Repin, State Russian Museum, St-Petersburg

The Floor-Scrapers, 1875, Gustave Caillebotte, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Repairing the Railway, 1874, Konstantin Savitsky, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Hard Times, 1885, Hubert von Herkomer, Manchester Art Gallery

The End of the Working Day, 1886-87, Jules Breton, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn NY



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