Realism, the movement that focuses on depicting people’s daily lives in an authentic and unprecedented way, has revolutionized Western painting. In this article, we will explore the impact and significance of realism in the art world.

Realism and the painting revolution

What is Realism?

Realism emerged in France in the 1850s, following the revolution that demanded the “right to work” in 1848. This movement redirected the attention of painters towards the middle and working classes, with a focus on everyday life.

Realist painters rejected the norms of Romanticism, a school of painting that promoted fantasy, emotion, and freedom. Unlike Romantic painters, who often embellished and distorted reality, realist painters vehemently opposed such idealization.

Jean-François Millet, "The Gleaners" (1857)

The Great Realist Pioneers

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet is considered the leading figure of the realist movement. In the 1840s, he laid the foundation for this artistic revolution by portraying peasants and the working class amidst a contemporary wave of religious and historical themes.

Courbet believed that idealizing contemporary society and ignoring its flaws was unacceptable. He wanted to reflect the true essence of society in his work, preserving the individual characteristics of his subjects. As he once said, “Each of my works is a society in miniature.”

Gustave Courbet, "The Stonecutters" (1849)

Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet, like Courbet, portrayed the working class in his art. Having been born and raised in the French countryside, Millet often painted farmers. For him, the rural theme resonated deeply, as he believed that the human aspect of painting had a significant impact.

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Millet not only contributed to realism but also founded the Barbizon group of painters to challenge and subvert romanticism’s influence.

Jean-François Millet, "The Man with the Hoe" (1860-1862)

Honoré Daumier

Honoré Daumier was known as a painter, engraver, sculptor, and caricaturist who utilized his talents to criticize the French provisional government. His caricatures, although often exaggerated, provided a subjective yet revealing vision of 19th-century French society.

Honoré Daumier, "The Third Class Car"

Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur specialized in animal paintings, with most of her works set in farmland, meadows, and fields. Today, she is remembered as a highly successful woman painter and sculptor. Her famous work, “Plowing in the Nivernais,” won first prize at the French Salon exhibition in 1848 and remains a representative piece of the realist school.

Rosa Bonheur, "Plowing at Nevers" (1846)

Édouard Manet

Although often regarded as an Impressionist painter, Édouard Manet played a significant role in the realist movement as well. Acting as a bridge between the two artistic trends, Manet inspired realist painters to reflect on everyday life’s impressions.

“I have my own vision of life, and I always try to find effective ways to convey that vision to the viewer through each drawing,” shared Manet.

Édouard Manet, "The Old Musician" (1862)

The Influence of Realism

After finding success in Europe, the realist movement quickly spread to the Americas. In the US, painters such as Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler embraced realism in their work. Their artistic contributions, including portraits, urban life series, and iconic paintings like “Whistler’s Mother,” significantly enriched the American art scene.

Moreover, realism’s influence extended to later contemporary painting movements, such as photorealism and hyperrealism. These movements, which simulate photographs in painting and sculpture, serve as a testament to the enduring value of the realist painting movement.

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Edward Hopper, "Night Hawks" (1942)

Realism has left an indelible mark on the world of painting. Its focus on authenticity and depiction of daily life has challenged and transformed the art landscape, inspiring generations of artists to examine the world around them as they seek to communicate their unique visions.

To learn more about the history and significance of realism, visit Caravansarai.

Images source: Caravansarai