Realism was a movement that began in the mid 19th century and lasted until the end of that century. It was sparked by the introduction of photography, the development of new technologies in architecture and design, and the new found interest and knowledge of the properties of light.
Realism was exactly as it sounds. It was real. It depicted life precisely as it existed without emotional embellishment or interpretation. Romanticism was popular at the time Realism came into being and the Realist painters did not favor Romanticism at all. In fact, it was the aim of Realist painters not to imitate past artistic accomplishments, but rather the use of nature and life as it truly is for all inspiration. Art was to be the epitome of objective reality.
Realism was also born in an age of what is known as Positivism, a time of positive thinking in which human beings had an almost unshakable faith in knowledge and science and that these two things could work to cure al ailments and solve all human problems. This is a far cry from times past when the church largely controlled the art establishment and encouraged faith in the divine rather than knowledge.
Of course, no painting can be completely true to life. However, Realist painters tried their utmost to create paintings that were as true to life as possible. There was no theatrical drama about a painting. There were no classical themes or great subjects. These paintings were about common life. This style of painting is not new. Many cultures around the world at different stages throughout history have dabbled in the realistic representation of their subjects.
Because the paintings of Realism were not embellished, they would not only portray what was considered beautiful. It would also portray the plain and the ugly, just as they were. Often times, Realism would capture the social conditions of society, and the work of some artists such as Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, and Jean François Millet had their work referred to as social realism.
Of course, the subjects of the Realist artists were the same as the subjects as the Romantic artists and other artists as well. The difference was in how they were portrayed. After all, the working class had been portrayed before, but never with such stark realism. Realists tended to depict the actual lives, appearances, problems, customs or primarily the middle and lower classes. They found the unexceptional, the ordinary, the humble, and the unadorned to be ideal for depiction in their art work. It was once again a time of painting, not based on what the artist felt, but on what they actually saw. However, these painting were still packed full of meaning, much more so than a simple portrait that was meant to merely capture an image.
Realism tended to be political statements in some countries. In France it followed on the heals of the French Revolution of 1848 and it supported democracy. In England, Realism was used to make a statement against Victorian materialism and the principles of the Royal Academy in London. However, despite its social inclinations, Realism was almost completely centered on painting. Otherwise, in construction, it was about mass production – creating a skeleton of something that could then be reproduced in large quantities. Sound familiar?
There were three different schools of Realism painting. The Realists were a group in Paris between the years of 1800 and 1899. They truly focused on new scientific concepts of light and optical effects. They were democratic and shunned the more traditional views of the world. Artists included Marie Rosalie Bonheur, John Singleton Copley, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Thomas Eakins, Ignace Henri Theodore Fantin-Latour, Wilhelm Leibl, and Edouard Manet.
The second group was called the Barbizon School, and it was also centered in France in the 1840s and 1850s. These were the nature and landscape artists who escaped from the depths of revolutionary Paris to create their art. They inspired the love of visual reality and brought the reality of nature into the view of the art world in a fresh new way. Artists included Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean-François Millet, and Pierre-Etienne-Théodore Rousseau.
The third school was British and it went by the name of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and they existed from 1848 to the mid 1900s. They held belief in the doctrine that the artist’s goal was to imitate nature and they believed the only truly great art was the art created before the time of Raphael. They held high the accuracy and detail of their work and took a very moral approach to painting.
Realism was a time of integrating art with the world as we know it today, with science, materialism, and the stark reality of the modern life in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It paved the way for other expressions of art that, although it did not necessarily capture life exactly as it was seen and experienced, continued to use form and line to create new expressions of the modern way of life.