Realist Painting (19th Century)
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The term "Realism art movement" traditionally refers to the mid-19th century style of French painting exemplified by the work of Gustave Courbet, as well as Honore Daumier and Jean-Francois Millet. They were the most active exponents of a type of social art which honoured the working man, his life and his environment, and which coincided with the rise of science and the growth of industry. With its social (if not socialist) content and no-nonsense style of representational art, Realism focused attention on the mundane, the everyday and the low-brow, creating in the process some of the most striking images of the modern era. Realist artists influenced painting across Europe and as far afield as Australia, although the dominance of official academic art restrained its impact outside France. At any rate, it paved the way for Impressionism and various forms of Post-Impressionism, and continued to develop throughout the 20th century. (Note: For more about Realism's links with Impressionist art, see: Realism to Impressionism: 1830-1900).
Life in the middle of the 19th century was completely changed by the growth of science and industry. This resulted in art and taste developing steadily in the direction of realism. To begin with, this new orientation was strongly felt in France and later spread, throughout Europe. It became intermingled with early 19th-century art, which was divided between Romanticism and classicism. (For more, see: Classicism and Naturalism in the 17th Century.)
In France, from 1830 to 1840, the Romantic outlook showed signs of decline. It is difficult to pick out the symptoms of this decline, for Romantic art was to survive for many years yet, continuing in the works of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916), and in the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) - the leading 'art expert' during the era of Victorian art. Indeed, in many respects the aesthetic outlook of the entire 19th century may be regarded as Romantic.
It is equally true to say that by 1830 the Romantic movement was on the wane. From 1830 until 1860 a new and very different spirit was growing. The Romantics avoided contemporary reality by losing themselves in the past or in distant lands; they tended towards pessimism or religiosity, and in general were subjective in their outlook. The new Realism movement, on the other hand, idolised the present moment and the immediate surroundings. They believed in progress, they were materialistic, and above all they approached their work in a spirit of objective observation.
The most important characteristic of the
new spirit which was spreading throughout Europe, was the multiplication
of scientific discoveries and inventions. Physics made decisive strides
through the work of Helmholtz, Carnot, Joule and Maxwell; a little later
chemistry made important advances in the work of Sainte-Claire Deville
and Berthelot. Darwin published various papers as early as 1839 which
were a prelude to his Origin of the Species, which was to come
twenty years later. In 1849 Claude Bernard discovered the glycogenic function
of the liver, thereby establishing at the same time both modern biology
and modern medicine.
The word 'Realism', then, must be accepted for the style existing from the time of the Second Republic (1848) to the middle of the Second Empire (1860). This acceptance, however, must not be allowed to conceal that there were pictures painted in this spirit before 1848, and that there were others painted up to and even after the end of the reign of Napoleon III (1873). A pre-Realism became apparent in the middle of the Romantic period, and a post-Realism continued side by side with Impressionism. The first prepared for, the second prolonged, and the two together framed the period of Realism. From these neighbours, Realism gained its personality and ultimately its various offshoots.
The French artists of the Romantic period frequently looked back into history for heroic or colourful subject matter, or - like Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) - they turned to Turkey or North Africa for their Orientalist painting of native exotica. Some of the greatest among them found in contemporary life, and in their own French landscape, subjects with a beauty or picturesque quality, which often they were able to express with great fluency. There were several factors which caused painters to take a greater interest in reality. They were living in a bourgeois society, and though they were in conflict with it, and though they treated the bourgeois as Philistines, they nevertheless shared their tastes. All bourgeois societies, for example in 15th-century Flanders and again in 17th-century Holland, have shown a liking for pictures which relate to themselves, their environment and their day-to-day life. Rather than paintings of medieval or Oriental subjects the ordinary Frenchman preferred French themes such as those based on the character of Monsieur Prudhomme, especially when they attempted the picturesque anecdote. Monsieur Joseph Prudhomme expressed the pompous stupidities of a caricatured middle class bourgeois; he was the creation of the writer and caricaturist Henri Monnier. With the exception of the greatest painters, few artists rebelled against anecdotal subject matter.
Artists were more willing to use this bourgeois realism because English and Dutch painters whom they most admired had revealed its possibilities. John Constable (1776-1837) met success when he exhibited at the Salon in 1824. The works of Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and John Crome (1768-1821) had become known in France. Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) spent the greater part of his life in France. Frenchmen were delighted with the stables of George Morland, the animals of Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), the amusing or sentimental anecdotes of C.R. Leslie and David Wilkie (1785-1841), and the story-telling of William Mulready (1786-1863). For more about English works, see: English Landscape Painting (1700-1900) and English Figurative Painting (1700-1900).
Yet the French looked to Amsterdam even more than towards London. Balzac's character Cousin Pons gathered together a miscellaneous collection of Dutch pictures, both good and bad. In the Rijksmuseum and in the Mauritshuis Fromentin, author of Les Maitres d'Autrefois, not only makes the reader pause in front of landscapes by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-82), but also in front of The Bull by Paulus Potter. Thore-Burger 'discovered' Jan Vermeer (1632-75); the less well informed average collector raved over Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) and Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85). So great was the reputation of Dutch Realist artists that everything about them seemed admirable. Never had they received so much acclamation in France, not even during the 18th century.
To these influences which affected the pre-Realism of the July monarchy (1830-48) should be added those coming from Spain. Since the end of the 18th century, Spanish painting had been especially appreciated in France. During the Napoleonic wars many fine Spanish paintings had been looted and had found their way into the Louvre and into private collections, in particular that of Marshal Soult. Etchings by Goya (1746-1828) had become widespread since the Empire, and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), as a young man, had sketched some of the prints which he admired. Yet nevertheless it was only in the Louis Philippe Gallery that a Frenchman could form a complete idea of Spanish art. It was not until 1838 that these treasures became generally accessible, and this was too late for them to have a determining influence on the painters of the pre-Realist generation. Spanish works by Velazquez (1599-1660), Zurbaran (1598-1664), Ribera (1591-1652), Murillo and Goya were to affect not so much the Realist artists Courbet and Bonvin were more influenced by the Dutch than the Spanish but those artists who were in their adolescence during the period 1838 to 1848. Pre-Realism, then, was not influenced by the proud and aristocratic quality, the poetry and grandeur, of 17th-century Spanish realism. It was drawn instead towards the bourgeois outlook to be found in English and Dutch art and in the little masters of the French 18th century. The pre-Realist artists, therefore, tended to turn towards landscape, animal painting and, finally, genre.
Romantic landscape painters turned away from historical idyllic landscape in the Claudean tradition and preferred to paint the landscape of their own country, just as Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), Ruisdael, Crome and Constable had done, and as the Frenchman Georges Michel (1763-1843) had already done. The painting of their own landscape was the first step towards objective reality.
Michel was the forerunner of genius, who not only paved the way for Romanticism, but also seemed to foreshadow Fauvism by the breadth of his vision and the expressionist lyricism of his brush work. These French landscapes were peopled with ordinary peasants in place of the old classical heroes. Nothing was lacking in the works of a Paul Huet (1803-69) for his paintings to be faithful images of French nature and French reality.
The aim of the great landscape artist Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was to be more direct and more objective. His proud genius affected Jules Dupre (1811-89) and the Spanish-born painter Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807-76), and attracted them to the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau, where the group thus formed about 1830 became known as the Barbizon school (1830-75). Though unjustly neglected today, this school deserves close attention not only for the quality of its landscape painting, but also for the historical importance of the movement and its impact on artists across Europe and Australia. Not only was it the first modern school to champion naturalism ('landscape meets realism') but the finest works of its leader Rousseau count among the masterpieces of 19th century landscape.
Rousseau and his followers renounced the picturesque, they renounced the anecdotal interpretation of nature which had encumbered the works of the Romantics, and they renounced the elaboration of the scene or the heightening of the emotional tension. Instead they applied themselves passionately to the analysis of reality. They analysed the structure of a tree, their main motif, just as the 15th-century Italians studied the anatomy of the human figure. They turned their attention to the form of the ground itself, to the sense of space, to the limitless unfolding of planes and to the representation of atmosphere. Also, light itself became the object of their scrupulous examination. From the foregoing a synthesis resulted giving to the whole cohesion, power and poetry. They were lovers of nature, and they painted portraits of nature. Nothing was sacrificed; a brushstroke would render solidity and at the same time give the sense of rugged life. Rousseau stated accurately their feelings: "Our art can only move the onlooker through its sincerity."
Sincerity was the outstanding merit of his work and the basis of his innovation, and this sincerity was turned towards pathos in the work of Rousseau and his friends. They belonged to their century, they felt nature intensely, loved it jealously and with so much pleasure. Their shy melancholy gives their plein air painting a restrained lyricism which runs throughout their work. This lyricism tends to lead them back towards drama, by which convention again creeps into their pictures. Sometimes their paintings became a little contrived. This tendency was most marked in major works carried out entirely in the studio, away from the open-air source of inspiration which had given them birth. The results showed a weakness which echoed the taste of their time for the highly finished glossy painting. Also as innovators they could not avoid leaning upon the past in developing their new language. Thus, the treatment sometimes detracted from the truth and the sincerity of their work. Even though the images are correct, even though they are touching and often moving, they remain unreal. The air does not circulate and the light does not vibrate. This is the reason for their neglect by our contemporaries who have been brought up on Impressionism, which scarcely ever looked back to the Barbizon school.
The Barbizon painters had a powerful influence on the generation of Realists who followed them. They taught them that all landscape, not only the picturesque, was beautiful. They taught them to look at landscape and to copy it with humility. They also bequeathed to them their sensibility with its powerful and permanent qualities, and they gave them the gift of being able to render landscape with grandeur. The landscapes of Courbet owed much to the Barbizon style of realist art.
Besides being the residence for landscape painters, Barbizon was also the centre for animal painters, who devoted a similar loving patience to the study of animals. If one compares the neat and tidy bulls of J.R. Brascassat with the robust and convincing beasts to be found in the best work of Constant Troyon or of Rosa Bonheur, one can see immediately what is meant by the spirit of Barbizon. These artists became victims of a success that forced them to multiply their production, and it is perhaps to the work of Charles Jacques that we should turn to see the Barbizon spirit expressed at its best, and to his etchings rather than to his paintings. His observation was fortunately animated by a discreet and slightly prosaic poetry, which saved it from banality. By contrast the horses of Alfred Dedreux had elegance and a certain monotonous panache. They remained convincing even though the artist sacrificed himself to the artificial brilliance demanded by the English gentry. In his own subject he represented that mundane realism which was partly responsible for the genre painting of the period. With Roqueplan and Jadin, he was much indebted to British animal painting. See for instance the work of George Stubbs (1724-1806).
Genre painting has frequently been executed with an acute but unsympathetic observation. This is so in the spirited oils and watercolours of Eugene Lami (1800-90), which were more successful than his military scenes. It is so in the witty love scenes of J.J.F Tassaert (1765-1835), his best work, and also in his more frequent scenes of the poor, even when he reaches his most sentimental. It is likewise to be found in the caricatures of Henri Monnier (1799-1877) who created Monsieur Prudhomme, the bourgeois type full of solemn and stupid remarks. And it is also to be found in the watercolours and lithographs of Paul Gavarni (Sulpice Guillaume Chevalier) (1804-66), which with faultless drawing, humour and bite reveal the society of the period. Little of all this was to influence the art which followed, apart from its realism, a feeling for the pace of modern life and a certain ephemeral charm. Constantin Guys (1802-92) made use of these qualities in his little masterpieces, and thereby passed them on to the Impressionists.
If the Orientalist painter A.G. Decamps (1803-60) had not frequently abandoned his Oriental subjects in favour of contemporary French themes, there would have been little of value in the subject of 'genre' for the Realists who immediately followed the Romantics. Decamps was excessively praised in his own day, though he is now, perhaps unjustly, neglected. Apart from his animal scenes inspired by La Fontaine, he often painted the life of the town or the country. In his works the unity of design, the fullness of form and the economy of colour controlled by the chiaroscuro derive from the analytical approach of Ingres and the colour of Delacroix. These qualities were used in a new way and were to pass into Realist painting. Apart from his lack of genius, Decamps would have been the equal of Daumier, on whom he had a decisive influence. He felt the heroism of contemporary life and he loved its ordinariness, which inspired both him and his contemporaries.
Many painters still felt the glory of the Napoleonic era which was so close in time and so dear to Frenchmen that it had not yet passed into history. Subject matter was drawn from the Napoleonic wars by the military painter N.T. Charlet, and by Auguste Raffet, and occasionally by J.F. Boissard de Boisdenier. During these years when the followers of Saint-Simon joined forces with the followers of de Lamennais, and the liberal Catholics joined with Lamartine and the republicans, many works revealed a love of the lower classes and attempted to create a social art capable of reaching the people and instructing them. As early as 1836 P.A. Jeanron exhibited his "Blacksmiths of Correze", and two years later Francois Bonhomme painted his "Furnace Workers of Abhainville."
Following the middle class spirit of 1848, the art of the middle classes became an act of love, of teaching and of propaganda. As they wanted to preach democracy, to educate the public and to praise goodness, these painters almost at one go saw everyday reality with fresh eyes. Whereas Decamps and the traditional genre painters only saw in day-to-day life subject matter for the picturesque, these new painters discovered a new dimension which had been felt at an earlier time by the Le Nain Brothers (Antoine, Louis, Mathieu) (c.1600-77), accurately described by Champfleury as the painters of the forgotten. In this way was born the new outlook of the pre-Realist painters who were richer in ideas and more generous in their intentions than they were prolific in major works. To them were indebted the painters of the 1848 generation, the champions of Realism proper.
The Realists of 1848 were more objective and more direct than the Barbizon painters, in whose work the permanent quality of perceived reality was mingled with certain conventions inherited from Romanticism. The 1848 school looked at life as did the genre painters, and they painted it in all its variety, even at its most humble. In painting it, they hoped that it would become ennobled by the love they bore to their subject, and by the gift they had for disclosing its hidden majesty. "They made use of the trivial in expressing the sublime," as Millet so aptly described it. They intensified this magnified picture of contemporary life and social preoccupation until they arrived at the equation: Realist art = everyday art = social art. By this aesthetic equation the Realists aimed to produce a style of painting which should rest on truth, but they also brought to it a strong poetry which for us remains the finest and most convincing element and is as strong today as it was then. The majesty of this poetry was enhanced by the simplicity of technique, in which the unity and chiaroscuro is related to Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and through him to Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Caravaggio.
Painters such as Felix Trutat (1824-48), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Francois Bonvin (1817-87) and some of the Orientalists never achieved the heights of the greatest of their colleagues because of the mediocrity of their talent and their attachment to the past and the formulas of their genre, even though they made so essential a contribution to the art of their time. Felix Trutat, who died prematurely, revealed a wonderful feeling for grandeur in his portraits and in his Reclining Nude of 1848. Though the work of Jules Breton is feeble in technique and stereotyped in its sentimentality, van Gogh saw in it "the precious pearl, the human soul" and a certain touching nobility. Bonvin, like many painters of his time, is unjustly neglected today. Despite the influence of Granet and of 17th-century Holland, Bonvin in his best moments attained a grandeur which owed something to Chardin, as in La Fontaine de Cuivre (1863), or to Zurbaran, as in The Hare. These pictures are even more permeated by the spirit of his generation, which was made up of generosity and at the same time a sensitivity to familiar things and ordinary people. In the art of the Orientalist painter Edme Alexis Alfred Dehodencq (1822-82) there was more truth, and an intense feeling for the teeming quality of life, which may be found in his paintings of the Arabs of North Africa and the Andalusian gipsies, with all of whom he showed a brotherly sympathy. In his Orientalism he virtually discarded exoticism. In the case of Fromentin, who was a better critic and novelist than painter, one may find in his precise and sensitive pictures of Algeria and of Egypt a delicately observed visual poetry. The spirit of Realism was able to save mediocre painters from oblivion, and to bring forth a rich harvest from the greatest painters. Especially was this so in the case of Daumier, Millet and Courbet, who may be regarded as the trinity of the movement.
Honore Daumier (1808-79), as was natural for the oldest of the three, was the one most attached to the spirit of Romanticism. His inspiration, as in the case of Delacroix, was frequently drawn from the Bible, from classical mythology, from literary sources such as La Fontaine, Moliere and Cervantes. Examples include Mary Magdalen (1848) and The Good Samaritan (1850) taken from the scriptures; Oedipus (1849) and Nymphs and Satyrs (1850) from mythology; The Thieves and the Ass (1856) from La Fontaine; Crispin and Scapin (1860) from Moliere and a whole series taken from Cervantes' Don Quixote. His preferences among the old masters were also Romantic and led him to imitate Rubens in such a work as The Miller, his Son and his Ass (1848). His passion for movement and his insight into character which he developed in the practice of caricature art were also due to Romanticism. The epic quality which culminated in paintings like The Emigrants (1848) relates him to the creators of the Romantic movement, men like Hugo, Michelet, Balzac, Berlioz and Delacroix, who founded an inspired and superhuman universe. Daumier, though a visionary artist, also loved to observe the life of his times. He laughed at the bourgeoisie, the doctors and the lawyers; he felt tenderly towards children (La Ronde, 1855), towards mothers (In the Road, 1850), working women (The Washerwoman, 1860), workmen (The Painter, 1860), circus families (La Parade, 1866) and all the ordinary people who go to the theatre (The Melodrama, 1856), visit the public baths (The First Bath, 1860), or make use of public transport (The Third Class Railway Carriage, 1862). But Daumier, with his brush, crayon or pen, completely recreated the world he saw. He peopled it with massively and powerfully constructed beings who have a heroic force. Daumier was a sculptor too, among the greatest of the century, and his drawn figures owed much to this. They stand out from a chiaroscuro, which is richer in poetry than in the works of his contemporaries Millet and Courbet, and is on a level with that to be found in the work of Goya and Rembrandt.
Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) was close to Daumier in his treatment of light, in his simply but sculpturally conceived figures, and also in his use of colour. Like Daumier his draughtsmanship was better than his handling of paint, which was more studied and heavier. Millet approached Daumier in the warmth and sympathy he felt towards the peasants. He differed from Daumier in his complete abandonment of Romanticism and also in the direction of his inspiration. Millet did not make a study of the light and shade contrasts, or the characterisation of the individual which Daumier stressed in paintings such as The Chess Players. Millet's figures have monumentality without movement. Nearly all his paintings aimed to capture the toil and sweat and suffering of his fellow peasants. Examples include The Winnower (1848), The Sower (1850), The Gleaners (1857), and Man with the Hoe (1862). Millet was born in the country and brought up in the fields. In 1849 he moved to Barbizon. It was natural that landscape should occupy in his work a more important place than it did with Daumier, a painter belonging to the town. Millet could understand the voices of the earth and of the sky, and those of the cow-bells in the fields. His feeling for nature was that of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was expressed as a primitive force where the denseness of growth and the ruggedness of the ground (The Church of Greville, Hameau-Cousin) echo the timeless way of life of the peasant (The Cowherd, 1859; The Angelus, 1859; The Shepherdess, 1864). By his monumental quality and his sense of the eternal and the universal, Millet represented the classical version of Realism as Daumier represented its Baroque expression.
Millet painted the peasants in the country, Daumier the people in the town. Gustave Courbet (1819-77) became the painter of the provinces, of its half-bourgeois half-rural population, and its prosperous market towns. His work might have been prosaic but for a deep love of nature, a sense of the dignity of man and, more important still, the genius of a born painter. Whereas Daumier drew on Romanticism and Millet on Poussin, Courbet developed his art on the example of the Caravaggio school and Rembrandt. It was thus Courbet who was to take Realism to its greatest heights. See in particular his great genre painting A Burial at Ornans (1850, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) and the allegorical work entitled The Artist's Studio (1855, Musee d'Orsay).
Firstly, Courbet was a Realist by his choice of subject matter, based on direct observation - seascapes (The Wave), landscapes, especially from the Jura (The Stream of the Puits Noir), the animal life of the mountains (Deer in a Covert, The Trout), and above all the everyday life of his times, especially in Ornans and in Paris (After the Meal, 1849; The Funeral at Ornans, 1850; The Peasants of Flagey returning from Market, 1850; The Village Girls, 1852; Girls on the Banks of the Seine, 1856). To Courbet, portrait art was more important than it was to either Daumier or Millet, and particularly the self-portrait. He also painted female nudes and a quantity of still life painting. All that life put before him was subject matter for his brush.
Secondly, he was a Realist, in that he frequently set forth his republican and socialist convictions. The Stone-breakers (1849), The Artist's Studio (1855), The Return from the Lecture (1863), and even the portrait of Proudhon (1865), are manifestations and also proofs of his fervent belief in social art, so characteristic of the Realism of his times.
In the work of Courbet one may look almost in vain for the love that Daumier and Millet expressed for ordinary people. He was a man less of tenderness than of grandeur. He felt the grandeur and nobility of modern life and he made it perceptible to all in his canvases, which it is important to note were much larger than those of other Realists. He was so convinced about the strength and majesty of the humanity of his times and of the life of his times, that he needed the resources and the scale of the grand history painters.
As a painter Courbet was equal to his ambitions as a man. Though he was an inferior draughtsman when compared with Daumier or Millet, he was their superior by his genius as a painter. He shared their unified vision, their taste for chiaroscuro, their preference for powerful and static figures modelled by means of light and also their preference for sober colours. Like them he frequently chose the solid and immovable aspects of nature. With all his generation, he enjoyed richness of textures and of flesh, a sense of the abundance of nature and a feeling for what was timeless. With his consummate technique he enjoyed manipulating his rich impasto style, laying on the paint with decisive strokes of brush or palette knife, which were varied in thickness, strength and texture (note the nude in The Studio, for example). He handled his materials with the same technical skill as a master mason or a superb cook. His realist paintings are superior to those of Caravaggio and Ribera, and to all those Realists whose materialistic outlook on the world and to their painting restricted them to being little more than master craftsmen.
He was a painter of genius, he had a sense of grandeur, and he was also a convinced and convincing propagandist. These factors explain and justify his immense influence. It is from Courbet, more than from any painter of his time, that the third generation of Realist artists derived their art. They continued the formulas of Courbet's predecessors, they scarcely ever invented, and their art rapidly became academic.
All the great Realist painters of 1848 had their followers from 1860 onwards. Some of these lacked neither skill nor sincerity. The art of Bonvin, echoed by Antoine Jean Bail and his sons, Franck Antoine and Joseph Bail, influenced several still-life painters, notably Philippe Rousseau and Antoine Vollon. From Millet and still more from Jules Breton there arose a set of painters of peasant subjects, of whom the best remembered is Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84). Jean Charles Cazin was more sensitive and individual, and was sometimes a fine artist, particularly in his landscapes of the countryside around Boulogne sur Gesse (Haute Garonne). Courbet, however, had the largest and longest group of followers. It ran from Legros and Regamey to the painters of the Bande-Noire (so called because of their austere colour) such as Lucien Simon and Charles Cottet, through whom his ideas were extended well into the 20th century. Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, an aristocratic teacher, had as pupils Fantin-Latour and Guillaume Regamey. Regamey in his military paintings revealed the same keen observation and vigorous brush work as Courbet. His friend Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) vitalised and brought up to date the lessons of Holbein, his first love, by what he gained from the work of Courbet. Legros's paintings L'Ex-Voto (1861), Les Demoiselles du Mois de Marie (1875), and The Pilgrimage show how the influence of Courbet continued in the paintings of this Burgundian artist, who settled in London in 1863 and became a naturalised Englishman.
The example of the great Spanish painters together with that of Courbet explains the early style of Leon Bonnat and E. A. Carolus-Duran. This style is represented by the Young Neapolitan Beggar (1863) by Bonnat, the Murdered Man (1866) and the famous Woman with a Glove (1869) by Carolus-Duran. After these there followed a long production of second-rate works which was so mediocre that it may be wondered if the influence of the Spanish artists and of Courbet was not an unfortunate one for French painting.
The independent genius of Camille Corot (1796-1875) developed in isolation. It nevertheless owed something to the movements of his time. His art stood above them, yet summed them up, and at the same time prepared more than any other for the art of the future. He began from a Neoclassical background. The influence of his teachers, Michallon and Victor Benin, and also that of Aligny, turned his vision towards Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82), masters of the historic landscape. As a result he exhibited at the Salon throughout his life works such as Hagar in the Wilderness (1835), St Jerome (1837), The Destruction of Sodom (1844-1858), and Dante and Virgil (1859). From them, too, he inherited a love for Italy which he first visited in 1825. It was there that he painted his earliest important works. These paintings already show the whole spirit of Corot. They reveal a fresh and penetrating eye, a natural modesty and a sure and persevering hand. His innate classicism enabled him to revive a worn-out tradition, making it vital and fruitful again. The quality of his painting was due to his direct contact with nature, his observation of light, his judgment of colour tone values, his sense of structure and his feeling for atmosphere.
On his return to France he was affected by Romanticism. He painted, earlier than the Barbizon painters, in the forest of Fontainebleau. For a short while he painted good pictures on literary themes, perhaps influenced by Huet. He was romantic and fond of nature, and he shared with the writers Nerval and Lamartine a taste for mist, twilight, and for what was indistinct or fluid. His paintings of the lakes of Ville d'Avray, his Dance of the Nymphs (1850), his Souvenir de Mortefontaine (1864) and his Etoile du Berger were essentially Romantic. So too, by reason of their fantasy and their poetry, were his pictures of monks, of women in Italian or Oriental costumes, and of his models, whose reading, painting, playing the guitar, or whose jewels, plunge them into a deep dream or pensive melancholy. Gradually as he became more familiar with nature he began to paint directly from the subject out of doors. He shunned the picturesque and painted simply and without affectation works like The Valley (1860), Souvenir of Marissel (1867), The Road at Sin le Noble (1873); or he chose unpicturesque views such as in Chartres Cathedral (1830), The Port of La Rochelle (1851), The Bridge of Mantes (1870). He no longer created elaborate settings or complex compositions. He painted directly from nature, emphasising the construction and formal qualities of the subject. His colour was fresh and atmospheric. His views of the French countryside and towns were Realist, but they were also already Impressionist. He enjoyed shimmering forms and transient effects.
He loved the changing light of the sky and painted from what have since become regarded as quite ordinary subjects. This direct accent was an entirely new convention. Corot influenced several landscape painters who in turn affected the Impressionists. His formulas were repeated by F.L. Francais and E.A.S. Lavieille, and pastiched by P.D. Trouillebert. The more original artists absorbed the spirit of his work: men such as Antoine Chintreuil, Henri Harpignies, and Charles Daubigny (1817-1878). Daubigny, the most important of these landscape painters, drew on the essence of Corot. Daubigny was an intimate friend of the Barbizon painters, but it was to Corot that he was most indebted, and also to a number of painters of a 'friendly' countryside, such as Camille Flers and Adolphe Cals. Straightforward views, flowing water and passing clouds attracted Daubigny, who enjoyed the ephemeral charm of the seasons (Spring, 1857) which he set down with delicacy and conviction. The Impressionists were quite right in studying the work and respecting the talent of Daubigny - the most Realist perhaps among their forerunners.
The Realists Daubigny and Courbet prepared the way for Impressionism. The Realists destroyed the old hierarchy of subject matter, whereby history painting was considered a more important art than landscape or still life. Without them Impressionism could not have existed. Realism taught them to look directly at life in all its aspects without prejudice, to discover beauty everywhere, especially in everyday existence, to paint it with truth; and that this was sufficient in itself. For their technique the Realists looked back to the past; they rarely made innovations, far less than Ingres or Delacroix. The great revolutionary of 19th-century painting was not Courbet, the last in line from Caravaggio, but Manet.
It is immediately apparent that academic art was able to profit from Realism without difficulty. For a time there was some struggle; academic artists reproached the Realists for their cult of ugliness, their choice of everyday life as subject matter, their truthful instead of idealised representation and their vigorous brush work. Likewise critics found the work of Winterhalter, Gleyre, Hebert, Gerome, Paul Baudry and Cabanel over-polished, conventional and literary. But the two styles could be quite compatible, as was demonstrated in the works of Thomas Couture, who painted his Romans of the Period of Decline (1847) and, almost at the same time, fine portraits and robust nudes. In fact the academic and the Realist style became one in the work of most official painters under the Third Republic. Of these, Bonnat painted portraits, and Carolus-Duran social subjects. N. Goeneutte, H. Gervex and P.A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret painted genre, Ernest Meissonier (1815-91) military subjects, and William Bouguereau (1825-1905) biblical subjects. All used the technique which was most suitable in rendering their quasi-photographic vision. They were convinced of the need to copy unquestioningly what was in front of them, and to imitate nature. This, then, was the heritage of Realism, both excellent and detestable, in France; but it was to spread much further afield.
Realist painting affected most European countries, arriving with a delay in time corresponding to the distance from France. This spread was largely the fruit of a general development in Europe towards a positivist outlook, a belief in literal fact and a new way of looking at truth. It was so general a movement that it affected countries which would seem to be most deaf to the calls of Realism, such as England, Spain and Italy. In painting, the diffusion of Realism was favoured by events such as Courbet visiting Belgium in 1851 and Germany in 1869, by the visits to Paris of numerous foreign painters such as Menzel, W. Leibl, Jozef Israels and N.J. Grigorescu, and by international exhibitions, especially the one in 1855.
Dickens and Thackeray gave England a Realist literature. In painting, even though Ruskin led artists to take an interest in the past, in legend and in a pseudo-mysticism, there were artists who nevertheless had a fervent belief in reality. From one point of view the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were Realists, eagerly seeking in 15th-century Italian art a fresh if myopic approach to nature. A love for reality is at the heart of their art even though they were encumbered by literature, piety and pastiche. These painters, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and John Everett Millais (1829-96), and also their spiritual father, Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), who inspired them to paint in minute detail, had something in common with the miniaturist vision of a Meissonier.
The Catalan artist Mariano Fortuny (18381874) also brings to mind Meissonier whom incidentally he knew in Paris. He too was a Realist orientated towards the past, who loved to reproduce a junk shop's bric-a-brac with microscopic accuracy which he painted with hollow brilliance. Fortuny, who was acclaimed throughout Europe, established this hybrid genre, a compromise between Romantic chocolate box painting and a sweetened Realism. He died in Italy, where his influence affected every sort of pretty or meretricious painting. D. Morelli, who remained uninfluenced by the lively qualities of Courbet, was a prisoner of history painting - or rather of melodrama. Arguably the outstanding Spanish artist of the period is Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923), whose career exemplifies the general trend from Realism to Impressionism. Compare for instance his realist masterpiece The Relic (1893, Fine Arts Museum, Bilbao) with his Impressionist work The Bath (1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).
The tendency towards Realism was strong everywhere, but except in France it always came up against an entrenched academicism. Romanticism in France had set in motion currents which resulted in a magnificent harvest from the Realist painters; elsewhere, instead of growing and developing, Realism was still-born. It was denied its full fruition due to the docility of painters towards the past and towards a literary approach, and this was so even in countries whose traditional genius might have predisposed them to its acceptance. In 1867 the Societe Libre des Beaux Arts was founded in Belgium. Charles de Groux, who worked in Brussels, was the Belgian counterpart to Legros; he developed an honest and vigorous style based on Courbet.
The Barbizon painters influenced a fine school of landscape artists at Tervueren, among whom Hippolyte Boulenger was outstanding. Daubigny's influence appeared in the sensitive seascapes and rainscapes of Louis Artan and Guillaume Vogels. Realism soon became academic in the work of Alfred Stevens, a Belgian who moved to Paris (not to be confused with the English artist of the same name). As in the case of Henri de Braekeleer, a sort of Fortuny from Antwerp, Stevens produced a mundane version of Realism. Braekeleer and Fortuny, however, were finer artists than either Stevens or Meissonier; they made use of broader brushwork, could interpret the play of light and had an appreciation for simple things. Their admiration for David Teniers and Gonzales Coques, though it helped their work, confined them somewhere between the Flemish 17th century and the French 19th century; the latter they could not fully accept because of a conscious or unconscious fidelity to their national tradition. The same was true of the animal painter Jan Stobbaerts, and also of their Netherlandish neighbours.
Earlier, 17th-century Dutch Baroque art had very much influenced the Barbizon school. The Barbizon school now repaid its debt to Holland by influencing the school of The Hague, many of whose works are in the Mesdag Museum there. (See: Post-Impressionism in Holland: 1880-1920.) These Dutch artists passionately admired their French forerunners. The artists of The Hague were diverse in their outlook, but they had some things in common. They joined the ideas underlying the art of Rousseau and Millet to their own national heritage. Using these they created a precise and literal Realism which avoided paltriness by means of the traditions of Dutch painters who made an intense study of the effects of light and the use of chiaroscuro. Their work carries conviction and reveals a sensitive melancholy. Johannes Bosboom was enthralled by the examples of the past. J. H. Weissenbruch and P.J.C. Gabriel echoed both the recent Romanticism and the more distant period of van de Velde and Hobbema. Jozef Israels spent three years in France; this, together with his poverty and perhaps the influence of his Jewish origin, awakened in him a taste for social art. The spirit of 1848 passed into his sentimental pictures of daily life. In the works of Anton Mauve the same tendency towards the sentimental was mitigated by the delicacy of his light and colour. The Maris brothers, Jacob, Matthijs and Willem, seemed almost to be the Daubignys of their country; they were truthful to their landscape without being conventional, and they were sensitive to the play of light which gave their works a hint of Impressionism. The greatest of these Dutch painters was undoubtedly Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), who was French as well as Dutch. He paved the way towards Impressionism, having first passed through a period of anecdotal Romanticism and then one of Realism.
French Realist landscape painters also influenced the Swiss. Karl Bodmer, who frequented Barbizon, and Barthelemy Menn, who was a friend of Corot, delivered Swiss painting from the picturesque tourist landscape of Calame and the over-worked Romanticism of alpine scenes.
German painting of the 19th century was idealist, philosophic and literary. 19th-Century painters such as Piloty, Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) and Feuerbach were led towards Realism by the detailed anecdotal art of the Biedermeier painters. Austrian art developed in a similar way.
Among the painters of everyday life, Kruger in Prussia, Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) in Bavaria, Jakob Alt and Moritz von Schwind in Austria had their counterpart in the Frenchman Lami. Landscape artists with a photographic and touching anecdotal stvle included Eduard Gartner in Berlin and Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller (1793-1865) in Vienna. The two best German painters, Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) and Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), were both influenced by French Realism. Menzel visited Paris on three occasions, and there painted his best known work, Memories of the Theatre Gymnase (1856). The striking use of colour combines happily with sharp observation and wit. Leibl also painted some of his best work in Paris, for example, Cocotte of 1869. When he returned to Germany his observation became photographically exact, and he strove to find a complete balance between colour and drawing. Three Women in Church (1882) is his best known work of this period.
German painters often lapsed into story-telling. Hans Thoma was drawn towards a realist conception of landscape by the fleeting influence of Courbet in 1868, but later he became a sort of poet-painter in whom the narrative urge was uppermost. Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), a portrait painter, borrowed in turn from the 15th-century Flemish painters, the Venetians, Rembrandt and Velasquez.
In eastern Europe, Russia, Hungary and Rumania were influenced by French Realism. The mystic and humanitarian Russia of Gogol was ready to accept the 1848 aesthetics of France, in feeling though not in technique, for academicism was more strongly entrenched there than in any other country. In 1863 the younger artists rebelled against the Academy. N. G. Chernyshevski in 1855 wrote The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality setting forth the new realist and social doctrines. His friends formed the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions in 1870 (whose members became known as The Wanderers or Itinerants), with the intention of educating all Russia to their new outlook in art, but unfortunately their works only stemmed from the old fashioned techniques which had been taught them. They confused painting and subject matter, and their art was only superficially Realist. Vasily Perov (1833-82) painted anticlerical genre scenes. Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887) painted The Temptation of Christ, at Golgotha (1892); there is in both something of the religious disillusionment of their time. Pacifism permeated the military paintings of Vereshchagin, who had seen the horrors of war at first hand. Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) protested against the abuse of power in his The Boyarin Morisova (1887) and his Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1881). Ilya Repin (1844-1930) was the most important Slav painter of the period. He sympathised with the suffering of the people as in The Bargemen of the Volga (1873), or pleaded the cause of the revolutionaries as in Revolutionary Awaiting Execution or They Did Not Expect Him. The quality of even Repin's work was not equal to the nobility of his intentions. Russia was so deeply immersed in academic habits that even her greatest artist could not throw off the old confusion between subject and picture, between what was represented and its representation. Realist landscape art was best exemplified by the woodland artist Ivan Shishkin (1832-98) and the scenic painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), who was also noted for his biblical pictures.
Hungarian artists, especially Mihaly von Munkacsy, were equally enthusiastic towards social art. In paintings such as Peasant Idyll (1865), The Last Day of the Prisoner condemned to Death (1870), The Poachers (1874), he revealed the virtues and sufferings of the people, a sense of national glory and a humanised Christ. These works recalled Courbet and the Caravaggio school, yet unfortunately remained in a museum tradition. Pal von Szinyei Merse painted contemporary life in Hungary in a lively way with a free technique and a lively appreciation for his period (Picnic in May, first exhibited 1873); and Laszlo Pail painted landscapes in the Barbizon tradition and, indeed, spent his most fruitful years there. In Rumania N.J. Grigorescu, who had worked in the forest of Fontainebleau, continued the Barbizon style into pictures of his own countryside and its peasantry.
French Realism spread across the whole of Europe, though it found no equal to Courbet or Daumier. Repin was little more than a Slavonic Jules Breton. The Cocotte by Leibl was more a cousin of the Woman with a Glove than any relation of the Girls on the Banks of the Seine. This Realism, however, made the first breach in the academic outlook of several countries; it encouraged painters to look differently at life around them, so that they came to reconsider the basis of their painting. It also prepared the ground for James Ensor (1860-1949) in Belgium, the young Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in Holland, and Max Liebermann (1847-1935) and Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) in Germany.
Outside Europe, Courbet's style of realist painting was a particular influence on Australian Impressionism, whose practitioners - including Fred McCubbin (1855-1917), Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909) - preferred a more naturalistic style to that of Monet. This more realist approach - exemplified by McCubbin's evocative painting "The Pioneer" (1904, National Gallery of Victoria) - was in line with their overriding desire to create a style of realist art that properly conveyed the reality of settler-life in Australia.
Realism in China (20th Century)
The latest 20th century variant of realist painting is Cynical Realism, the Chinese contemporary painting movement which appeared in the early 1990s, and which satirized the anxiety and uncertainty in China in the wake of Tiananmen Square.
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