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