The Realist Movement

The Realist Movement emerged in the context of tremendous social and economic upheaval.  The Industrial Revolution stimulated the dramatic expansion of industry and increased prosperity, but it also brought enormous inequalities in wealth that eventually led to social revolution.  The Realist Movement emerged in the wake of the revolution of 1848, when Parisian workers rose up against the newly formed Second Republic.  The Romantic emphasis on personal expression laid the groundwork for an art of social protest, and the Realist movement took this further by demanding an art that confronted the injustices of class inequality.  Rebelling against the mythical subject matter that still dominated the mainstream of academic art, the Realists called for an art that confronted “reality” directly.  Poor peasants and workers replaced classical warriors, gods, and kings, and the “Grand Manner” style was replaced by an uncompromising realism that did not shun unsavory details.

Original caption:
Original caption: “The progress of the century.” Printing press, telegraph, railroad, steam engine. Lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1876.

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 18th century and had a profound impact on social and economic life in Europe and the United States.  Some of the key innovations of the Industrial Revolution included advances in agriculture (industrial farms replaced the small family farm), manufacturing (factories and mass production), and transportation (the invention of the steam engine).   Dramatic population growth led to the growth of cities (urbanization), and this shift from agriculture to industry caused a massive population shift as poor peasants (displaced from their farms by more modern industrial farms) moved to the cities to seek work.

communist-manifestoIn this context, a new class system emerged, as the bourgeoisie (middle classes) reaped the economic benefits of industrialization, while peasants and the working classes remained at the bottom of the social ladder.  Unfair wages and poor working conditions (described in vivid detail by writers such as Charles Dickens) led to increasing tension between the classes, and “class conflict” became a defining feature of 19th century society.  The unfair exploitation of workers prompted Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to draft the Communist Manifesto in 1848, in which they proposed a communist economic system as an alternative to Capitalism.

Turning Points in History – The Industrial Revolution

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

In July 1830 members of the middle and working classes rose up against the restored monarchy of Charles X, and Delacroix recorded the event in this dramatic modern history painting.  In the center of the composition is an allegorical figure of Liberty (who the French called “Marianne”) leading her comrades across the barricades.  Her fluttering drapery and semi-nudity was meant to recall classical representations of Victory such as the Nike of Samothrace.  She carries the French tricolor flag, symbol of democracy, and wears the Phyrgian cap on her head – another symbol of freedom.  In the foreground (and at the base of the pyramid composition), lie two dead figures, one in military uniform.  They recall the dead and dying figures in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, which was an inspiration for this work.  Flanking Marianne are two figures:  a man with a top hat carrying a musket, and a street urchin waving two pistols.  They represent the middle and working classes who united in arms against the aristocracy in 1830.

The painting caused an uproar at the Salon of 1831; critics complained of the plebian character of Delacroix’s Liberty, referring to her as an ugly fishwife, with hairy underarms and the physique of a gladiator!  Delacroix’s “image of the people” was altogether too realistic, and too much of a reminder of the “real” working classes who  remained a threat to the security of the monarchy.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (Smarthistory)

Franz Xavier Winterhalter, King Louis Philippe, 1839

Winners and Losers
The revolution of July 1830 was a failure.  When Charles X abdicated, he was replaced by Louis Philippe, who agreed to rule as a constitutional monarch.  Although he became popular as the “citizen king,”  and the middle classes prospered, the conditions of the working classes continued to deteriorate.  In June 1848 Parisian workers again rose up in arms against the government.  This second revolution led to the formation of the Second Republic under Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and in 1851 Napoleon III staged a coup d’êtat, and proclaimed himself emperor.  This marked the beginning of the Second Empire.

The Realist Movement (1830s-1850s)
The Realist Movement emerged in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, and took the plight of the working classes as its main theme.  But images of poor peasants and workers became frightening to the French middle classes after 1948:

“[T]he middle class linked the poor with the dangerous, newly defined working classes, which was finding outspoken champions in social theorists such as Karl Marx . . . Socialism was a growing movement, and its call for social justice,, even economic equality, frightened the bourgeoisie . . . In [the Realists’] portrayal of the poor, many saw a political manifesto.”
Kleiner, Mamiya, et al., Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 351

With their emphasis on working class subjects, the Realists rejected the idealized subjects from history, fiction, and myth that were the mainstay of academic art; they called for an art of “reality” based on everyday life.   In their works, poor peasants and workers replaced classical warriors, gods, and kings, and the “Grand Manner” style (based upon classical models) was replaced by an uncompromising realism that did not shun unsavory details.

Jean François Millet, The Gleaners 1857
Museé d’Orsay

A member of the French Barbizon School, Millet represented poor peasants rather than idealized nymphs, and called attention to the real conditions of their existence.  In this painting Millet shows rural peasants who must labor under a wealthy landowner for a meager wage.  After the harvest is done these women have returned to gather up the scraps left behind.  Their poverty is contrasted with the industrial scale farming operation seen in the background.  Millet emphasizes the noble character of the peasants – a sentimental, “romantic” idealism that Courbet will reject.

 “When The Gleaners was first exhibited in 1857 it met with mixed reviews within the art world. Some commentators attacked its depiction of the rural poor, which on the one hand served as an unwelcome reminder of the marginalized poor (who were taken to be a threat to society), and on the other hand were consider the kind of grotesques who had no place within the artistic realm. The comments of one critic named Paul de Saint Victor might be taken to illustrate such an attitude: 

His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved.”
Cited in Griselda Pollock, Millet, London 1977, p.17

Millet’s The Gleaners (Smarthistory)

Honoré Daumier, The Legislative Belly, 1834
Lithograph, Metropolitan Museum

Honoré Daumier made his living as an illustrator and political cartoonist for popular papers such as Le Charivari and La Caricature.  His political cartoons lampooned politicians, lawyers, doctors, and the bourgeoisie:

“Daumier, one of the nineteenth century’s great caricaturists, was prolific as a pointed political satirist until complete censorship of such subjects was imposed by the government in 1835. In this lithograph, he ridiculed the conservative members of the Chamber of Deputies—all recognizable to his contemporaries—for their arrogance and corruption, depicting them as bloated and dozing.”
Metropolitan Museum

Honoré Daumier, Gargantua, published in La Caricature, 16 December 1831

His caricature of Louis-Philippe as Gargantua earned him a six month prison sentence, and was censored by the government:

“When Honore Daumier was 24 he was first censored for his caricature of the French king Louis-Philippe. This took place within the first years of the July Monarchy, and the king felt paranoid and insecure in his seat of power. In the caricature, entitled “Gargantua”, the king is represented as a giant gourmand, a character taken from Francois Rabelais’ series of stories, which were themselves censored by the Sorbonne. The fat king sits in front of the National Assembly on a large commode. A huge plank comes out of his mouth on which rewards travel down to the eager officials beneath. Standing around his small, cripples legs are tattered workers and starving mothers who drop coins into the baskets on ministers . . . . In late 1931 the publishing business La Maison Aubert submitted “Gargantua” to the “depot legal” for publication and put it on display in the window of the shop. It was soon seized, along with other prints done by Daumier, by the Paris police. They ordered the owner of the publishing house to destroy the lithographic stone and all the remaining proofs. In February 1932 Daumier, the owner of the publishing house, and the printer, were all brought to trial for arousing hatred and contempt of the king’s government, and for offending the king’s person. In the trial the argument was over whether “Gargantua” represented the king personally or if it was a symbolic representation of the king’s swollen budget. All three of the men were convicted, but only Daumier served a prison term.”
Censorship:  A World Encyclopedia

Honoré Daumier, Rue Trasnonain, 1834

Another controversial work was this lithograph recording a massacre in a worker’s housing block in Paris.  Presented in a detached “documentary” style — almost like a news photograph (though phtography did not yet exist) — Daumier prefers to let the “facts speak for themselves.”

“Violence erupted in the streets of Paris in 1834 in response to a new wave of laws issued by King Louis Philippe to limit freedoms of association and expression. Barricades were hastily thrown up in working-class quarters of the capital and smashed by government troops the next day. On the rue Transnonain in the Marais, a riot squad entered a building believed to be the source of shots that had killed an officer, and the troops gunned down a dozen occupants.

In this monumental lithograph, Daumier memorialized this event, which had occurred just three blocks from his home. By portraying the carnage of a family in their bedroom, the artist heightened the sense of outrage, creating a picture of ultimate trespass. Daumier’s figures are clearly innocent victims: a young male in a nightshirt, a baby, an elderly man. Daumier chose to depict the moment of eerie calm after the violence; terror exists only in traces, in the bloodstains and the overturned chair. Baudelaire said of the image, “Only silence and death reign.””
Yale University Art Gallery 

Daumier – Man of his Time 

Honoré Daumier, The Third Class Carriage, c. 1862
Metropolitan Museum

While Millet focused on the plight of the peasant, Daumier’s main subject was the urban proletariat — the working classes that were created by the Industrial Revolution.  In this picture, Daumier chronicles the impact of the industrial revolution on the conditions of the poor by confronting us with the anonymous victims of class, crowded together on a train.  In the background we can see top-hatted ladies and gentleman, but Daumier focuses our attention on the peasant family riding in the third class carriage at the back of the train.  Consisting of three generations of a family (mother, grandmother, and children), the picture captures a common social reality of the 19th century as country peasants, forced off the land, traveled to the city in search of a new life in a new economy.  These could easily be Millet’s peasants, forced off the land, and traveling to the new industrialized city in search of work.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Breton Brother and Sister, 1871
Metropolitan Museum

A Note on Realism:  Is the painting illustrated above “realistic?  Many students will say it is, because of its nearly photographic realism; but this is NOT the definition of Realism in art.  Adolphe-William Bouguereau was an academic painter who remained committed to an idealizing style:

“Bouguereau championed academic training throughout his successful artistic career, even as it fell out of favor during the last decades of the century . . . . Bouguereau’s peasants are invariably idealized: they are presented as glorified, clean, and noble, and they are often arranged in poses that recall ancient Greek sculpture. This particular painting is based partly on sketches Bouguereau made in Brittany, but it was finished in his studio.”
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

So Realism does not mean “photographic.”  Although this picture may look more “photographic” than Daumier’s cartoon-like caricature, Daumier’s work is defined as “Realist” because it captures the harsh reality of the subject’s social condition, without flattery or idealism.

Etienne Carjat, Portrait of the painter Gustave Courbet, c. 1861
Museé d’Orsay

The leading artist of the Realist movement was Gustave Courbet, who scandalized Parisian audiences with his grandly scaled pictures of “uncouth” peasants and workers:

“Courbet worked in every genre, from portraiture, multi-figural scenes and still lifes to landscapes, seascapes and nudes. He did so with a surpassing concern for accurate depiction, even when that meant portraying impoverished women or laborers engaged in backbreaking tasks—a radical approach at a time when his peers were painting fanciful scenes of rural life, stories drawn from mythology and celebrations of aristocratic society. Courbet’s women were fleshy, often stout. His laborers appeared tired, their clothes torn and dirty. “Painting is an essentially concrete art,” he wrote in a letter to prospective students in 1861, “and can consist only of the representation of things both real and existing.”
Avis Berman, “Larger Than Life,” Smithsonian Magazine April 2008

Courbet rebelled against the mythical and ideal subjects favored by the academy, and against its slick, polished finish as well:  he often used a palette knife to apply his paint in a thick impasto, which appeared crude and uncouth to his audiences.  He once proclaimed “show me an angel and I’ll paint you one” to communicate his conviction that art should be based on reality, rather than idealism.   Because he insisted on “telling it like it is,” Courbet’s work was considered politically subversive to Parisian audiences who preferred to ignore the injustices of class inequality.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849

In this painting, Courbet portrays two ordinary laborers breaking stones for a new road.  While poor people were often seen in genre scenes, this painting was enormous in scale (5’ 3” by 8’ 6”), which was normally reserved for grand and heroic subjects.  But Courbet’s picture is anything but grand and heroic – instead, it is a blunt and unsentimental image that does not gloss over the harsh realities of the men’s dreary existence.  Their clothes are tattered, and the juxtaposition of youth and old age suggests that there is no escape from this backbreaking way of life.

When Courbet’s picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1850 it was attacked as being crude and uncouth, both in terms of its subject and the style.  Parisian audiences did not like to be reminded of the plight of the working classes, and uncouth workers were considered inappropriate subject matter for “high art.”  In addition, Courbet’s method of applying his paint was equally offensive.  The artist often applied his paint with a palette knife, resulting in a surface that seemed dirty and crude to audiences accustomed to the smooth and polished finish of academic painting.

Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans, 1849
Musée d’Orsay

One of Courbet’s most famous — and controversial — works was Burial at Ornans, which depicts a funeral in his hometown village.  Painted on a colossal scale (it is over 10 feet high, and 21 ft long), the picture depicts ordinary people on a scale that had been reserved for noble or heroic subjects.  When it was exhibited at the Salon of 1851, critics were horrified by his his ugly provincial subjects, and the crude manner in which he applied his paint.  Equally disturbing was the blunt manner in which he presented the “facts” of death, with no hint of redemption.

Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, Smarthistory 

Read a comparison at

The Pavilion of Realism
In 1855 the Salon jury rejected two of Courbet’s works from that year’s exhibitions on the grounds that they were too large and too coarse.  The artist withdrew all of his paintings and set up his own “Pavilion of Realism” on the grounds of the Exposition Universelle (a kind of “World’s Fair”).  Courbet’s private exhibition was an important precedent for creating an alternative to the annual Salon with its restrictive juries and rules.


Web Resources:

Nineteenth Century French Realism, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Realism @ Smarthistory 

Culture Shock:  Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (PBS) 

Gustave Courbet @ 

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