What Impact Did Realism Have on Society?

The artistic movement called Realism sought to expose the less pleasant aspects of life, such as the struggles of the working classes.

Apr 20, 2024By Mihaela Gutu, MA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and Literature

realism impact society


Realism gained momentum after the French Revolution of 1848. It was aimed at rejecting the values of Romanticism and history painting. Artists like Gustave Courbet turned to a more realistic approach to art that involved depicting day-to-day lives. Realists focused on the present time, human experience, and everyday people in ordinary settings, which were previously considered unworthy of depiction in art. Through realist paintings, artists offered the public a different perspective on French society and urged people to start acknowledging the unpleasant aspects of life.


Realism: A Reaction to Romanticism

The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet by Gustave Courbet, 1854. Source: Artchive


The term Realism is most often used to refer to the Realism art movement that has roots in 19th-century France. Although it is believed that the Realism art movement began in 1840, it gained momentum right after the French Revolution of 1848, during which King Louis Philippe abdicated. Furthermore, the monarchy was abolished and The French Second Republic was established.


Realism emerged as a reaction to Romanticism. Artists rejected the perspectives of the previous generation of artists. They decided to turn their talents in another direction by depicting real, ordinary people and situations without the fear of showing the unpleasant truth of everyday life. Before that, Romantic artists invited people to see the world from an idealized point of view by creating pieces of artwork capable of causing highly emotional responses.


The Rejection of History Paintings

realism stone breakers gustave courbet
The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet, 1849. Source: Wikipedia


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Realist artists were not as keen to execute history paintings. Instead, they turned to ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, thus changing the viewer’s perspective. At the same time, they showed the grandiosity of their paintings by executing them on extremely large canvases, a detail they chose to retain from historical paintings.


Take Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, for example. It measures 4.9 ft × 8.5 ft. Traditionally, such dimensions were used only when depicting mythological or religious themes. They were never used to portray the labor of the lower classes. By showing these people on their large canvases, the artists openly defied official preference toward history paintings, which had been traditionally considered the highest form of art. By depicting ordinary aspects of life they rebelled against the belief that only religious, historical, and mythological themes deserved such grandiosity.


Courbet’s Realist Manifesto

The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet, 1843. Source: Orsay Museum, Paris


Courbet, who is regarded as the father of realist art, stated that the artists living in a specific century were incapable of reproducing the aspects of a past or future century. As such, the only way to produce living art was to rely on personal experiences. According to his realist manifesto, “Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating that thing itself.”


Gustave Courbet believed that real life and the present time featured enough beauty, so turning to history and exaggerations of all kinds was not necessary to make beauty real and visible. Artists who amplify it only ruin the beauty of nature, which is, according to Courbet, superior to all the inventions of the artist.


The Impact of Realist Paintings on the Public

The Uprising by Honore Daumier, 1869. Source: Phillips Collection


Changes often force people to think outside the box which can make them feel uncomfortable. Society members did not react very positively to the Realism art movement. Courbet’s paintings were regarded as anti-authoritarian political threats. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French socialist and politician described Courbet’s The Stone Breakers as an “irony directed against our industrialized civilization.” This painting was among the first realist artworks to arouse such controversy. Both critics and the public condemned Courbet’s pursuit of ugliness.


Considering how drastically different his paintings were compared to Romantic paintings—which focused on emotions, imagination, individualism, and nature—it is not surprising that the masses found them quite disturbing. Honore Daumier’s paintings, for example, started appealing to the masses only in 1878, right before he died. Before that, they were considered highly radical. He explored many subjects in so many different ways that, initially, it must have felt confusing to the public, which was not used to this new art trend. Daumier depicted aspects related to the medical and judicial system, painters, art collectors, the working class, as well as immigrants and refugees.


Realism: A Nonconformist Movement

a burial at ornans gustave courbet
A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1850. Source: Orsay Museum, Paris


A turning point in the history of Realism occurred in 1855. After having three out of fourteen paintings rejected for an exhibition at the Exposition Universelle, Courbet withdrew all of his paintings and displayed them in his Pavillon du Realisme. Opening his own exhibition was the ultimate act of defiance that gave Realism an anti-institutional, nonconformist touch. One of these paintings was A Burial At Ornans, which was criticized for portraying a ritual reserved only for royal and religious purposes. In time, however, people came to regard this particular painting as the actual burial of romanticism, thus making it an iconic realist artwork.


The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet

the gleaners jean francois millet
The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1855-1856. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Besides notable paintings like Courbet’s The Stone Breakers and A Burial At Ornans, Realism was also marked by Millet’s The Gleaners. The artwork portrays three peasant women collecting leftover crops after the harvest. Naturally, the upper classes were not too impressed by this image. It seemed to some that Realist paintings glorified the lower classes. Truthfully so, they reminded everyone that it was only thanks to the labor of the working class that French society prospered. The artworks of Realist painters were a wake-up call for the upper classes since they finally understood that they were significantly outnumbered by the working class. Therefore, Realist painters reminded the public of the power of the working class.


The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier

The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier, 1862-1864. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Another iconic realist painting is Daumier’s The Third-Class Carriage. It depicts the poverty of the working class by portraying the cramped, dirty compartments of railway carriages. Whereas other realist painters focused on rural settings, Daumier achieved his goal by portraying the role of the working class in modernized urban settings. As such, to highlight the contrast between the first-class, second-class, and third-class carriages, he executed three paintings with the same name, one for each carriage class. Viewers can easily spot the difference between the three.


In The First-Class Carriage, for example, Millet portrays well-dressed people enjoying their trip. There is almost no physical contact between them. In The Third-Class Carriage, on the other hand, we see a woman nursing her child, another woman holding a basket, and a boy who has fallen asleep. This setting depicts the tiredness and effort required to ensure their survival. In the background, we see that the compartment is filled with other men and women sitting very close to each other.


Realism Outside France

repairing railway konstantin savitsky
Repairing Railway by Konstantin Savitsky, 1874. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although Realism originated in France, it evolved outside the country as well. In Russia, for example, the movement was represented by a group called Peredvizhniki. Konstantin Savitsky was part of that group. His work Repairing Railway became one of the first realist paintings depicting the daily life of the working class.


jokers gostiny dvor in moscow illarion pryanishnikov
Jokers, Gostiny Dvor in Moscow by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1865. Source: Gallerix


Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov was one of the founders of this group. His most famous artwork is Jokers, Gostiny Dvor in Moscow, which portrays the world’s cruelty and moral deformity. The painting brought him instant fame due to the controversy it caused, but the artist was condemned and regarded as a destroyer of high art at the same time.


The Iron Rolling Mill by Adolph Menzel, 1872-1875. Source: Nationalgalerie, Berlin


One cannot talk about Realism without discussing Adolph Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes). The work portrays the industrialized dynamic of the working class and the interdependence between men and machines. Last, but not least, Thomas Eakins was one of America’s most profound Realist artists. His most notable work is The Gross Clinic, praised for its photographic depiction of a surgical process.


The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1875. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art


By portraying a conservative operation rather than an amputation of a man’s leg, Eakins contributed to the change in the way people regarded surgeons since they were mostly linked with amputation rather than actual healing. The painting was rejected for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition due to its overly realistic depiction. Allegedly, it caused unwanted reactions in people who were sensitive to such delicate topics.

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By Mihaela GutuMA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and LiteratureMihaela is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She’s an avid reader of classic literature with a background in literary studies and literary translations. She is obsessed with language grammar and syntax, so spending hours dissecting sentences and texts is a pleasure for her. Mihaela grew up in a family full of artists. Although she pursued a career in literary arts, she’s also passionate about performing arts (particularly dance) and visual arts. In her free time, Mihaela plays with her cat Cappuccino, binge-watches TV series, rereads her favorite books for the tenth time, and spends time online learning new stuff.