Preceded by Romanticism
and followed by what is now considered Symbolism, the Realist art movement prevailed from about 1840 until the late nineteenth century. Largely centered in France, Realism soon spread across Europe and as far as the United States. Realism aimed to give a truthful and objective presentation of the world, based on careful observation of contemporary life. Rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the extravagant themes of Romanticism, the Realists’ message is best summed up in the words of philosopher Friedrich Hegel: “True reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day.”
Critics often accused Realist art of being ordinary and uninteresting, arguing that it “sacrificed a higher and more permanent for a lower, more mundane reality.” However, part of the beauty of Realist art is its use of everyday subject matter—inspiration was found everywhere. Many critics also argued that Realist art was overly simple and presented few challenges to the artist or to the viewer. But what critics failed to understand is that the level of interpretation is where the difficulties and challenges appear. No matter how objective the artist’s vision, the visible world must be translated onto canvas. Every brush stroke, every tint of color, every last detail is at the artist’s discretion. The artist must examine his own perspective and filter out any subjectivity, for Realists recreate the world in its own image, unaided by the freedom of interpretation.
Realists often defined themselves as against the “progressive” or “avant-garde” trends of the day. The Realists placed value on the depictions of low, the humble and the socially dispossessed. Gustave Courbet, who led the Realist movement, stated that his goal as an artist was to “translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation.” He was known for addressing social issues in his work. One of his contemporaries, Jean-François Millet presented scenes focused on peasant labor, sparking much controversy over its honest depiction of rural poverty. Honoré Daumier was another such artist who emphasized socio-economic distinctions in the world, painting life in its raw form. Other influential Realist artists include Albert Edelfelt, Jules Breton, John Singer Sargent
and Wilhelm Leibl.
Realists ushered in a new democracy in art, opening up a whole new realm of subjects that were once deemed unworthy or unsuitable. Realists found inspiration in the commonplace and even in the abject. By committing to stark honesty within the subject, the artists invested themselves in the art. It became a moral as well as an aesthetic imperative, and within the art, the subject matter of realism became as varied as the outlooks of the artists themselves.