Realist Art for Dummies: A Beginner’s Guide

Realist art emerged in France, in the mid-nineteenth century, from a desire to paint subject matter which was true to contemporary culture.

Dec 14, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
realist art gustave courbet
The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet, 1849; with The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-81


In 1855, after having a painting refused from the French Universal Exposition, the painter Gustave Courbet decided to open his own exhibition to showcase his works; he called it the Pavilion of Realism. In nineteenth-century Paris, aspiring artists would submit their paintings to the jury of the Salon and they would judge whether the painting was worthy to be showcased for the public eye; for patrons to view and buy; for fame and recognition of skill. However, the jury of the Salon adhered to strict rules and ideas when judging these paintings. For them, art was supposed to be morally uplifting and beautiful; the subject matter should depict classical mythology, biblical scenes, or historically significant scenes of national culture. Realist art rejected these notions and believed that an artist should be socially aware of their own time, of their own culture. Below is an overview of the Realism movement and its impact on modernism.


realist art courbet after dinner
After Dinner at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1849, via Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille


The subjects for painting, as prescribed by the Salon jury, began to feel too alien to the artists of mid-century France. The Realism movement found inspiration in what was happening ‘right now’ in the lives of ordinary people. There was a newfound concern for French society and culture which wished to elevate the contemporary lived experience to the level of respect commanded by the traditional Salon subject matter.


Realist Art And The Social Concern

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A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1849, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


The Realism movement grew out of an acute awareness of the vast changes that were taking place in French society during the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in the eighteenth century, provided a new pace to society with the growth of technological inventions; factory procedures, the railway; manufacturing products became quicker and more efficient, supplanting an old way of living.


For France, and countries such as the United Kingdom, a new progressive spirit permeated which prized the individual’s accumulation of wealth and the transformation of society through the means of technological invention. Major cities, such as Paris and London, became places of opportunity and wealth causing nationwide migrations from the country to the city. The city became a symbol of modern life: the progressive, innovative spirit, and the chance to experience the new fast-paced life of modernity.

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realist third class carriage honore daumier
The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier, 1862-64, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This shift in culture had created an unwelcome tension between the classes of French society. Capitalism had provided wealth for some and a system of poverty for many more. In 1848, the French working classes overthrew the monarchy in Paris to create the second republic. Although short-lived (the monarch would be reinstated by 1851) it was a powerful symbol of unrest. The modern way excluded many and became focused on the city, leaving behind the rich heritage of the countryside and country labor.


Realist art had the sensitivity to recognize these changes as monumental; this is why Courbet was rebelling against the Salon. The art of Salon no longer resonated with the new progressive spirit of life, nor did its subjects reflect the cultural change which France was going through. What was important was to depict how people lived in their own time. Artists of the Realism movement sought to re-kindle a familiar feeling of human interaction, not vast mythological scenes that had no bearing on lived experience.


Subject Matter Of Realist Art

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The Child Jesus Going Down with His Parents to Nazareth by William Dobson, 1856, via Tate, London; with The Laundress by Honoré Daumier, 1863, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Realist art is not interchangeable with Naturalist art. Naturalism denotes, in a painting, acute attention to detail in replicating nature; it can be a fictional scene or a past event. Realist art is more to do with the subject matter; Courbet defined it as ‘real history.’ It has a social conscious and is looking to paint subjects of contemporary living, of ordinary people and their perceptions. In this way, Realist art is drawing our attention to the common dignity of ordinary lived experience.


The Realist artists believed that there is a responsibility on the artist to document society. The subject matter, then, will depend on the views of the artist. Courbet, for example, was a socialist and so we find in his works a dedication to the working classes; the plight of the poorer sections of society suffering under the capitalist system. In a Realist painter like Millet, however, we find an intense interest in country living; the country laborer and their connection to nature, something lost in the modern fast-paced style of living.


wood sawyers jean francois millet

The Wood-Sawyers by Jean-Francois Millet, 1850-52, via the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Realist art is looking at society and showing how it affects the ordinary person; how it affects his way of living and relating to his fellow countryman. Through this dedication to ‘real history,’ Realist art wanted to contend and overthrow the traditional subject matter of painting. The Realist painters projected landscape and genre painting, forms of painting which were considered low by the Salon, to the same status as historical, biblical and mythological painting. It was an outrage for many when Courbet painted his ‘Burial at Ornans’ on a large canvas; larges canvases were meant for ‘noble’ subjects such as war or traditional narrativized scenes, not an ordinary village funeral.


The Realism Movement In The Country

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The Highland Shepherd by Rose Bonheur, 1859, in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Realist art was attuned to the divide that occurred between the country and the city. The growing wealth and opportunity of the city brought many from the country seeking a fortune. The city also held cultural currency in the arts and politics. Consequentially, the city became a symbol of wealth and knowledge whereas the country became associated with an older, less refined, way of living, suitable for weekend leisure trips but not a place for the educated to prosper.


To the more sensitive, this divide was not so simple. It was felt that something was lost by this transference to the city. The city may have provided this ideal of the innovative, progressive spirit, but it also brought on depersonalization and alienation from nature. The vast population of the city was overwhelming and impersonal. Laborers worked mechanically, out of touch with the land, and in the harsh environment of a factory; buildings blocked the horizon creating a microcosm of man-made land.


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L’angelus by Jean-Francois Millet, 1857-59, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


The modern way of living incurred a nostalgia for a genuine connection to one’s landscape, and to one’s neighbor. Realist art recalls the life of the country with its simplicity and communal spirit. The openness of a landscape and being in tune with the rhythms of the seasons. The country laborer became a heroic subject for some Realist artists, representing the core human connection with the land, and our dependency on it.


The Realism Movement In The City

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A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Edouard Manet, 1882, via the Courtauld, London


The later stage of Realist art, as illustrated in the works of Edouard Manet and Honore Daumier, shows a fascination with the city as a subject of painting. These artists were following the example set by Courbet and Millet by painting subjects ‘unfit’ for the Salon, only now, their subject was modernity. The city afforded an exciting ground for artistic exploration with its blend of social classes and leisure activities which the new middle-class could indulge in.


gustave courbet stonebreakers
The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet, 1849, via Phaidon Press


The painting of real rural life as heroic, with candid compositions, was the first step to a contemporaneous representation. However, modernity, in the city, would need a new emphasis. What needed to be emphasized was the fleeting, transience, of modern city living. This notion was put forth by the influential French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Modernity was new, fast-paced, with a constancy of shifting crowds and moving carriages; the city didn’t offer the solidity and frankness of country but fleeting impressions. Manet was eager to find this Realist art style for modernity and, with denigration as always from the Salon, managed to set the tone for later artists with paintings such as ‘Music in the Tuileries’ and ‘Boating.’


tuileries manet music garden
Music in the Tuileries Gardens by Edouard Manet, 1862, via the National Gallery, London


The Realism movement in the modern city hadn’t turned away from documenting ordinary people, although the focus now is middle-class, not laborers. The middle-class was now the modern hero, elevated to that status by Realist art. These ‘heroes’ of modernity passed our eye continuously giving us only glimpses; Realist art took on a style to mirror this optical experience with short brush strokes and implicit forms.


This new style has been spoken of as the beginning of modernist painting. It comes from a frankness when dealing with the canvas; we can see signs in Manet of the pull away from the illusionism that had presided over painting since the Renaissance. This was the effort to delude the viewer into believing they are looking at a three-dimensional space with a discernible vanishing point. The old art forms didn’t reflect modernity and a new world in painting was opening for the artists of modern life.


Beyond Realist Art

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The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-81, via The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.


Manet’s experimentation in form and subject would spark an exciting new scene in art. The Impressionist movement would soon take up where Manet left off. The Impressionists saw Manet as their inspiration and predecessor, although he denied becoming a part of their movement. The Impressionists were enthralled by the fleeting aspects of modern life; how light transforms color and shifts over objects and figures, changing from moment to moment.


Impressionists would too, like Courbet, set up their own exhibition after being denied entry to the Parisian Salon. Realist art set an example of artists to work out for themselves what was worth painting, to be socially conscious, and to consider their own time. This great step in artistic thinking would follow through to the twentieth century where groups of artists began to consider what was ‘real’ to an unprecedented degree.

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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.