The Realism Art Movement, which emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, was characterised by its accurate depictions of everyday life. Artists strove to depict the world around them truthfully, without idealising subjects or scenes. This movement sought to challenge academic painting conventions that had become increasingly popular during the Romantic period of art history.
In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about the Realism art movement, its definition, characteristics and the most famous artists of the movement.
What defines Realism Art
Realism, in the broadest sense, is an art movement, characterised by the faithful representation of reality, typical people and scenes of the working class. Artists in this movement aimed to portray their subjects with a sense of objectivity and honesty, focusing on real-world situations and mundane activities. Instead of idealising or romanticising their subjects, they depicted them as they truly were, in all their ordinary, unembellished existence.
Realist artists often chose to highlight the harsh realities of everyday life. This included the struggles of the working class, using their art to draw attention to social issues. The commitment to truth and social realism was a significant departure from the grandiose, fantastical themes that dominated the art world during the Academic and Romantic periods.
Historical and Social Influences
The Realism movement was greatly influenced by the political and social events that were occurring in Europe during this time. As a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, people sought to look back to more traditional ways of life. Realist paintings focused on mundane everyday activities, rather than grand scenes or heroic figures. Social issues such as poverty, class struggle and injustice were often highlighted in their art.
Impact of the 1848 French Revolution on Realism Art
The 1848 French Revolution had a profound influence on the Realism art movement. The revolution, which marked a significant shift in political power from the bourgeoisie to the working class, amplified the societal inequalities and struggles that the Realist artists sought to portray. As the revolution unfolded, artists were increasingly drawn to the depiction of the harsh realities of day-to-day life, as they were experienced by the common man.
The revolution served as a catalyst for artists to reject the fantastical, idealised depictions of life that were characteristic of Romanticism, and instead turn towards a more honest representation of reality. This approach was instrumental in highlighting the social and political issues of the era. Realism was, therefore, not just an art movement, but a medium for social commentary.
Realism and Academic Art
To understand the history of the Realism movement, we need to look at the changing art scene in France in the 19th century. Until the mid-19th century, the production of fine art had been largely centralised to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This institution, with a court of esteemed painting jury, would approve art to be shown at their salons. Art produced during this period was part of the Academic art movement. The academy, not only judged, but educated artists on what they saw as being proper techniques, methods and subject matters, that mirrored those of the old masters. They had stringent rules about what artists were taught, such as anatomy and studying from live models. The academy also stipulated a hierarchy of genres, history painting and portraits were ranked as high, whereas landscapes and still lifes were ranked as low.
Romanticism and Realism
The Romanticism movement originated in Europe around the same time as the Realist movement. Romanticism, which emphasised individualism, the sublime and glorified the past challenged the favoured Neoclassical style of the Academy. However, Academic art sought to combine elements from both Neoclassical and Romantic styles.
Realism, on the other hand, completely diverged from the aesthetics and style of Romanticism. Romantic artists tended to depict nature in its most dramatic form, evoking emotions of awe and terror, while realist artists were more concerned with capturing the mundane, everyday aspects of life. Romanticism focussed on the sublime, the fantastical, and the supernatural, often with a sense of nostalgia for a mythic past. In stark contrast, Realism focussed on the present and the ordinary, eschewing any form of exaggeration or dramatic effect. This divergence was more than just style and theme; it was a clear reflection of the societal and cultural chasms of the time, marking a significant shift in how artists understood and portrayed the world around them.
Realism as a Disruptive Force
The Realism movement sought to disrupt this status quo even further, with their commitment to portraying realistic scenes and challenging pre-existing conventions about what was appropriate subject matter for art. They looked to everyday life and observed mundane activities as inspiration for their work. This sentiment was fuelled by the aftermath of the French Revolution, as artists chose not to adhere to the monarchy-approved institutions’ preferred portrayal of French cultural outputs.
Contrary to the Academies’ expectations of artists portraying noble subjects through history or religious paintings, Gustave Courbet, a notable Realist artist, defied these norms. He painted with rough brush strokes, depicting the harsh working conditions of the impoverished from life.
The Impressionism Movement and the Salon des Refusés
Following closely on the heels of Realism, Impressionism emerged in the 1860s. It was a radical art movement that continued to challenge Academic traditions. The Impressionist artists, inspired by the realists’ commitment to depicting modern life and landscapes, infused their art with a new, vibrant style that sought to capture fleeting effects of light and colour in landscapes, seascapes and marinas.
The Impressionists were a group of Paris-based artists who were dissatisfied with the strict guidelines of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. They aimed to capture the world as they saw it, not as it was depicted in historical or mythological scenes, but as it appeared in everyday life, often painting en plein air (outdoors) to capture the changing light and mood of their surroundings.
One of the turning points of the Realist and Impressionist movements was the Salon des Refusés in 1863. The Salon, an official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government, was central to the art world until the mid-19th century in France. However, in 1863, the Salon rejected a large number of contemporary works, including those of Édouard Manet, a key figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Manet’s work, along with others rejected by the Salon, was subsequently shown in the Salon des Refusés (‘Exhibition of the Rejects’), established by Emperor Napoleon III to appease the artists.
This exhibition allowed the public to judge these works themselves. While many viewers ridiculed the unconventional paintings, they nonetheless marked a significant shift in public opinion. This event set the stage for the further development of modern art movements. Hence, artists began to break away from academic conventions, paving the way for the evolution of art as we know it today.
The main defining characteristic of Realism art is its focus on its commitment to depict life, as experienced by the working class. There was also a novel focus on the representation of landscapes, which, as a genre, was considered to be ‘less scholarly’ than history or portrait paintings by the academies. This movement was driven by a desire to show reality as it truly is, without any embellishment or idealisation.
Social Realism Rather Than Visual Realism
Realist paintings are known for their lifelike, representational quality. However, prominent artists such as Courbet weren’t especially noted for their attention to fine detail or soft edges, which contribute to more photo-realistic looking artworks. These attributes were associated with the teachings of the academy, which is what Courbet wasn’t especially interested in trying to emulate.
While the Realism art movement depicted subjects with accurate light and realistically muted colours, that were not emphasised for dramatic or aesthetic effect, the attention to detail in skin textures, fabrics and landscape elements was not as pronounced as with Academic art. Art from the Realism movement has a characteristic rough appearance, compared with Romantic or Academic art.
These characteristics may counter expectations of what ‘realism’ means to an onlooker. Realism, in trying to portray a subject realistically, had been the goal and endeavour of artists for centuries before the Realism movement of the 19th century. This is evident in the Renaissance and especially High Renaissance. However, art from the Realism movement was heavily imbued with the political and social ideas of the time. Artists from this movement appeared to paint with techniques that provided a sense of immediacy to capture the reality of their subject, rather than using the methods of the academies, which would have involved applying multiple layers of delicate glazes to alter colour profiles and create soft shadows to accentuate the beauty of their subjects.
While Academic art appeared contrived and artificially enhanced historical scenes, Realism eluded these artistic conventions. The Realism movement, as a political, social and historical movement, is a separate concept from the description of ‘realism’ in the sense of representing a scene with careful attention to visual detail.
The Realism movement was home to several renowned artists, including Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet and Honoré Daumier.
One of the key figures of this movement, Gustave Courbet was known for his commitment to social realism and his refusal to be constrained by academic conventions.
His paintings deviated from portraying subjects in sublime, sentimental or idealised ways, which went against the conventions of the time. His socialist ideas made him a controversial figure at the time. These political ideas were influenced by his family, his grandfather played a part in the French Revolution.
Courbet’s masterwork was the painting entitled ‘Burial at Ornans’, which depicted an everyday village funeral scene in great detail. This painting caused shock waves through the art world, as it was a far cry from the academic scenes of historical or religious events that were commonly seen adorning the walls of salons.
Millet rose to fame in the mid-19th century. His work often depicted rural peasant life and working conditions, such as his painting entitled The Gleaners. This piece shows three women gathering the remaining wheat from a field, which was considered an inferior job at the time. Millet’s work often portrayed these activities with dignity and respect, presenting a different perspective on the lives of those who worked in harsh conditions.
Honoré Daumier was a caricaturist, sculptor and painter whose works were associated with Realism. His work often critiqued the ruling classes and the bourgeoisie in his native France.
He is most famous for his lithographs, which were satirical caricatures of political and social figures of the time. He was also known for his ‘realist’ paintings of everyday people going about their lives, such as The Third-Class Carriage which depicts a cramped train carriage full of passengers, and Rue Transnonain, which illustrates the aftermath of a police raid on a tenement building.
Predominantly a landscape artist, Corot produced a huge body of work throughout his lifetime. Camille Corot was involved with the development of the Realism movement in art, as he focused on painting his landscapes from life. His views have been described as an attempt at capturing the beauty of nature without idealising it, such as in his painting The Pontoise Bridge which is a panoramic representation of a bridge and nearby river.
Corot enjoyed a positive reputation as his art career progressed and he was promoted to officer at the Paris Salon in 1867, after having been a jury member for 20 years.
Realism and Landscape Painting
One of the effects of the Realism movement on art was that it encouraged a wave of painters to represent landscapes in their paintings. The focus on this genre was novel, as most previous movements aimed to depict people and stories of importance. As the movement focused on truth and accuracy, painters sought to capture scenes from nature as accurately as possible.
The French Realist landscape painter Corot was a pioneer in this field. He was known for his ability to paint outdoors, capturing light in an unprecedented manner.
The Barbizon School of Painters developed in France around 1830 and was heavily influenced by the Realism movement. Artists from this school were committed to painting natural scenes and landscapes with accurate light and colour. This group of painters included Millet, Théodore Rousseau and Narcisse Diaz de La Peña, who all painted landscape works in an attempt to portray reality as accurately as possible.
By the standards of the academies in France, landscape painting was a more lowly genre, compared to the more scholarly genre of history painting. However, the Realism painters chose to focus on the beauty of nature rather than idealised scenes, which allowed landscape painting to gain more respect. The Impressionist movement that followed Realism was also strongly influenced by this focus on landscapes.
Realism and Social Issues
The Realism movement was also associated with social issues of the time. Courbet, in particular, used his work to address contemporary events such as famine and poverty. His painting The Stonebreakers depicted two peasants labouring in a field. This painting became an emblem of social protest, as it showcased the harsh realities of rural peasant life.
The Realism movement was also instrumental in bringing attention to social and political issues such as slavery and inequality. Daumier specifically focused on critiquing these injustices through his works.
Realism painters were not only politically active in their works but also in the way they lived their lives. Courbet was a known socialist and actively participated in demonstrations for social justice and political reforms, while Daumier was arrested for his criticism of the French government.
Realist Art vs. Realistic Art
Realist art is a description of the art movement, whereas realistic art could be a description of an individual artwork, that does not necessarily have the characteristics that define it as being part of the 19th-century art movement. Art from the Realism movement is characterised by its focus on everyday life, and its rejection of idealised or romanticised depictions of the world. In contrast, realistic art may not have these characteristics but depicts a believable, detailed representation of reality.
Realism vs. Hyperrealism
Hyperrealism, though often confused with Realism, is a distinct art movement. Realism is a social movement that focuses on the portrayal of the mundanity of reality, while Hyperrealism focuses on creating works that look almost like photographs.
Hyperrealist painters use technology to create incredibly precise and lifelike representations of their subjects. They employ a variety of techniques such as airbrushing, digital manipulation and photo-realism to create works that are almost indistinguishable from photographs. The Hyperrealism movement is a more recent art movement, where artists use photography and digital software such as Photoshop to zoom in on their references to capture every detail. Whereas Realism is a movement from the 19th century, that came about as a reaction against the idealised portrayal of subjects in Romanticism and Academic Art.
Realism paved the way for more socially conscious art. Later artists used their works to draw attention to social issues. The legacy of Realism can still be seen in the art world today. Many contemporary artists using their works to explore and comment on real-world situations.
Vincent van Gogh, the Post-Impressionist artist started his career painting Realist subject matter, such as peasant labourers, before moving on to creating more expressive and emotionally intense works. This highlights how the Realism movement laid the foundation for later art movements, inspiring artists to explore new ways of depicting reality.
Realism art is now widely celebrated for its commitment to objectivity and truthfulness, as well as its focus on everyday life and social issues. It has become a cornerstone of modern art history, a testament to the power of art to reveal the beauty in ordinary life and the truth of the human condition.