Realism, in the history of art, represents a revolution, not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of style. Here, both form and content are radically transformed by the inclination towards portraying reality as it is. Obviously, the cynic here could interject and suggest: how does someone know what is real, what point of view about reality is the artist talking about when he or she portrays a work in a “realistic” sense? The answer, especially in terms of nineteenth century realism, and more specifically the period from 1848-1860, is that realism looks to the everyday surrounding world for its subject matter and its inspiration in style and technique: the artist must dedicate him or herself to the quotidian and the mundane, taking motivation from everyday people that one encounters and everyday landscapes that one inhabits.
In this sense, realism is most easily distinguished in terms of the history of art. In other words, as the famed art historian Kerstin Stremmel writes, realism “denoted a 19th century artistic style which was the first in history of art to call itself realistic, and it did this with the express purpose of drawing a line between itself and its idealistic opposite numbers.” Hence, from this definition, realism is not only a turning towards mundane, quotidian and every day types of subject matter. Realism is also defined by its opposite, and that is an idealism. We can only understand this movement, therefore, by understanding it as a reaction.
But what was realism reacting against? Realism, as Stremmel informs us, reacts against the “idealistic”: and here the idealistic can be easily seen in the history of art, from images of the supernatural to the godly, of mythical figures, and of legendary narratives. Realism in this sense is perhaps informed by the principles of the Enlightenment and a scientific reason which slowly challenges the mystical and religious viewpoints of the world. Realism in this regard is the artistic outgrowth of the movement of science.
Ross Finnochio of the Metropolitan Museum of Art thus defines Realism as follows: “The Realist movement in French art flourished from about 1840 until the late nineteenth century, and sought to convey a truthful and objective vision of contemporary life.” There are some clear resonances in this definition from Finnochio with the arising of scientific discourses and science’s opposition to religion: what is aimed at are standards of truth and objectivity, which immediately bring to mind an objection to the more subjective mystical experiences that categorize religion.
Furthermore, as Finnochio emphasizes, “rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the exotic themes of Romanticism, Realism was based on direct observation of the modern world.” In other words, truth and objectivity are closely related to how we immediately live in the world. In this regard, there is a subjective dimension to Realism, but a subjectivity that differs from idealized classicism. This is because the crucial feature of Realism is how we directly relate to the world around us, without any ideological or theological supports. What Realism is trying to achieve is cut through various levels of obscure and mythical approaches, so as to reach a level of reality that is the real itself.
Of course, this movement can only develop in this way if it presupposes that “idealized classicism” and “exotic themes” are themselves failed representations of reality. Although much of our social history is defined by religion and mythology, even throughout the modern period to the contemporary time, the realist approaches art by considering these very human experiences as false experiences. Otherwise there would be no need for the realist’s classical maneuver of opposing idealism and romanticism.
Obviously, one of the best ways to look at how this Realist imperative functions is to turn to the works of art themselves. For example, the French painter Gustave Courbet completed what is acknowledged as one of the classic examples of Realism Funeral at Ornans, created during the time period of 1848 to 1850. Laura Lombardi suggests that in this work what Courbet does is the following: “the composed depiction of a country funeral replaces a more elevated academic subject, and its impact is that of a chapter of modern history.” In line with the previous remark about Realism’s deliberate reaction against exoticism, idealism and romanticism, Courbet’s work functions as a perfect example of how this opposition realizes itself in art: the funeral itself can be understood to be a ceremony, which from more mystical perspectives, evokes exotic romantic themes of death, the afterlife and religious ritual. Courbet’s choice of subject matter in this matter is deliberate: he takes a theme which could easily fit within the genres which realism opposes and then transforms it from a realist perspective, thus showing what the foundational principles of realism are.
What Courbet captures in this painting is the lives of the common people who attend this funeral, without any references to some mystical after-life. The entire ceremony is presented in an objective and almost scientific sense. It was as though a sociologist or anthropologist was examining this funeral scene in a tiny village in France, and stripping it of its ritual significance to those involved, tries to concentrate on what is happening according to a basic depiction of reality.
Another crucial representative of this style was one Jean-Francois Millet. His 1850 work, The Sower, demonstrates many of the same aesthetic commitments of his contemporary Courbet. First of all, the choice of the subject matter is clearly in line with the Realist movement: Courbet decides to pick a simple peasant sowing seeds in the field. Courbet gives a dignity to his subject matter by choosing the peasant as his theme, showing that art does not only have to commit itself to picking idealized representations of human existence. In this way, it can be said that Courbet calls attention to the fact that everyday human existence can also be considered a form of art. This, however, was not met with approval from the bourgeois class: As Gardner and Kleiner note, Millet’s decision “to invest the poor with solemn grandeur did not meet with the approval of the prosperous classes.” (632) This reveals another crucial aspect of the Realist movement: the return to reality is not only an intellectual movement against romanticism, idealism and exoticism, but it also makes a social statement. It shows that the lives of the poor are just as dignified as any other forms of life. Mythical figures and exotic figures give a priority and a value to exceptions in life, to those that somehow rise above the every day. These works of art therefore at the same time devalue everyday life. They therefore devalue human life in general.
The Realist movement is in this sense a movement for social change. Men such as Courbet and Millet are not only to oppose idealism: they seek to restore dignity to common forms of existence, while also, in line with the principles of the Enlightenment, remaining faithful to a form of objective truth. Realism captures moments of social truth, of the existence of the everyday laborer: it is thus radically conscious of class difference and social normativities, as well as of scientific advances. It is in this sense that the idea to capture reality becomes an idea to improve and grant dignity to human life in all its forms. In this sense, the Realist art of this time period is truly a revolutionary form of art, in favor of social as well as scientific revolution simultaneously.
Finnochio, Ross. »Nineteenth-Century French Realism«, The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, Accessed at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rlsm/hd_rlsm.htm ,
May 4, 2013.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages: The Western Perspective.
Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010.
Lombardi, Laura. From Realism to Art Nouveau. New York: Sterling, 2007.
Stremmel, Kerstin. Realism. New York: Taschen, 2004.
 Kerstin Stremmel, Realism (New York: Taschen, 2004), 6.
 Laura Lombardi, From Realism to Art Nouveau (New York: Sterling, 2007), 48.
 Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages: The Western Perspective (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010) 632.