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Realism

Realism Collage

Started: 1840s

Ended: 1880s

"It is not a question, here, of searching for an 'absolute' of beauty. The artist is neither painting history nor his soul... And it is because of this that he should neither be judged as a moralist nor as a literary man. He should be judged simply as a painter."

Émile Zola Signature

Summary of Realism

Though never a coherent group, Realism is recognized as the first modern movement in art, which rejected traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization as outmoded in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in France in the 1840s, Realism revolutionized painting, expanding conceptions of what constituted art. Working in a chaotic era marked by revolution and widespread social change, Realist painters replaced the idealistic images and literary conceits of traditional art with real-life events, giving the margins of society similar weight to grand history paintings and allegories. Their choice to bring everyday life into their canvases was an early manifestation of the avant-garde desire to merge art and life, and their rejection of pictorial techniques, like perspective, prefigured the many 20th-century definitions and redefinitions of modernism.

Key Ideas

Realism is broadly considered the beginning of modern art. Literally, this is due to its conviction that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for art. Philosophically, Realism embraced the progressive aims of modernism, seeking new truths through the reexamination and overturning of traditional systems of values and beliefs.
Realism concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically, and culturally in the mid-19th century. This led to unflinching, sometimes "ugly" portrayals of life's unpleasant moments and the use of dark, earthy palettes that confronted high art's ultimate ideals of beauty.
Realism was the first explicitly anti-institutional, nonconformist art movement. Realist painters took aim at the social mores and values of the bourgeoisie and monarchy upon who patronized the art market. Though they continued submitting works to the Salons of the official Academy of Art, they were not above mounting independent exhibitions to defiantly show their work.
Following the explosion of newspaper printing and mass media in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as self-publicist. Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and others purposefully courted controversy and used the media to enhance their celebrity in a manner that continues among artists to this day.
Detail of <i>A Burial At Ornans</i> (1849-50) by Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet said he painted his hometown's "mayor, who weighs 400, the parish priest, the justice of the peace, the cross bearer, the notary Marlet, the assistant mayor, my friends, my father, the choirboys, the grave digger, two old revolutionaries" to depict the funeral of his great-uncle in his Burial at Ornans (1849-51) - thus painting his reality. When exhibited the painting created such an uproar and launched Realism, that the artist said later, "Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."

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