Art Movements in Art History - Realism
Art Movements > Realism > Realist Art in Context
Realist Art in Context*
In order to understand the provocative nature of Realist art, it is essential that it be seen in
the context of 19th century political and social structures and aesthetic and pictorial
conventions. Imagination is not the province of the creative artist alone; a study of art
history requires the spectator and student to use imagination to aid his or her understanding
of art. One must learn to develop the capacity to situate artworks in history, must mentally
enlarge paintings to their correct scale, place them on the walls where they were originally
hung (eg the Paris Salon) and see paintings, sculpture and popular prints through the eyes of
the journalists, middle-class industrialists, politicians or tradesmen of the past. One must
consider the prejudices, convictions and expectations which people brought to their viewing
of art at particular historical periods.
If a fashionable young Parisienne came to the Salon in 1834 to sigh sentimentally over
tragic stories, she would, no doubt, find Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
touchingly eloquent. Sixteen years later, and now a matron, if she brought the same
expectations to Courbet's Burial at Ornans, she would find this record of death harshly
factual, and devoid of pathos and narrative moralising.
The socialist critic might judge Millet's work The Gleaners (1857) indicative of the
harsh lot of the rural peasantry; while the wealthy urban industrialist might persist in seeing
in the picture a portrayal of the harmonious interaction of humanity and nature. Is this work
an indictment of conditions in the poverty-stricken rural areas of France, or is it an
optimistic testimony to the dignity of humankind contending with dehumanising labour?
Let us consider Courbet's Burial again. In 1848, Revolution engulfed Europe, toppling
monarchies and radically altering social conditions and political systems. The people of
Europe could no longer be manipulated. The past was remote and the present was very real.
At the prerevolutionary Salon of 1847, Thomas Couture showed his large painting Romans
of the Decadence. The subject was the immoral and idle behaviour of the Romans, once
noble, now corrupted by licentiousness and sensuous indulgence.
Couture was preaching on virtue and vice by means of a theatrical tableau in which a
civilisation crumbled through lack of moral probity. The painting was immensely popular ---
one shook one's head over the implications of corruption. But it was all very remote. At. the
Salon of 1850 to 1851, however, Courbet's Burial dealt with the uncomfortable truths of the
present day. His people were not conjured up from a past civilisation but were stark and
uncompromising individuals, reminders to urban politicians that the rural population of
postrevolutionary France must be considered in any new political dispensation.
Now imagine the Salon of 1863. Alexandre Cabanel shows The Birth of Venus. It meets
many of the requirements of male fantasy - a curvaceous, recumbent nude with luxuriantly
long tresses presents herself to the spectator as the body beautiful, and not as a specific
woman. Weightless on the waves, the nude is attended by winged cherubs who hover over
her in the blue sky. But the 1863 Salon also presented Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. The
work outraged almost all viewers because his nude was not a fantasy and obeyed no
conventions. Seated naked on the grass, attended by two males clothed in contemporary
attire, she stares out at the viewer, acknowledging her own flesh and the onlooker's
presence. The painting, in the context of the 1863 Salon, contradicted expectations
concerning "the nude" and offended conventions about "artistic" subject matter. The
hypocrisy of contemporary society regarding sexuality was thus exposed by art. In addition,
Manet's methods jarred sensibilities which accepted trompe l'oeil verisimilitude as the
appropriate vehicle for rendering the world in paint.
Realist art was much more than the faithful depiction of appearances. It neither
dramatised nor idealised man. It did not deal with general principles of existence; it focused
on specific facts of modern life. It offered `no escape from the pressures of the present; it
asked the spectator to see without prejudice. Millet, Courbet and Manet challenged the
viewing patterns of' the Salon-going public because they themselves, as artists, were
attempting to look at the world without preconceptions.
Whilst the works of each significant Realist artist were very different, the artists shared
one crucial objective: each questioned schemata and conventions and, in doing so, each
developed an individual style which accommodated his particular vision of the present.
In their day, these painters were radical, and a reading of the history and circumstances
oftheir epoch yield an understanding of the confused reactions to their works of the 1850s
and 1860s. Against a background of the many ridiculous, pompous and anachronistic
subjects presented at the Salons, Realist art possessed a content that was particularly
relevant to the problems, behaviour and norms of the time.
In the unstable political climate of 19th century France the power of the image was
acknowledged; the urban populations of Paris and other large cities were the target of
popular prints and newspaper caricatures. Daumier's provocative lithographs reached a
wider audience than Courbet's paintings, and since Daumier produced paintings as well as
lithographs, one could speculate about whether he had different objectives for each medium
andd whether he would have differentiated his image oeuvre into "low art" and "high art".
The Salon was the major exhibition venue in the 19th century. Artists submitted work
not merely to gain official approval or to become part of the establishment but also because
the Salon was the only venue where a professional artist had access to a large audience. A
visit to the Salon was entertainment for the bourgeoisie and the urban lower classes.
Because the Salon attracted a large "public", embracing the artisan and lawyer, the
Emperor and shopkeeper, the socialist and conservative, the voter and the nonenfranchised
machine worker, "public" reaction to Courbet's figure compositions was varied. What was
socialist propaganda to one viewer was an eloquent indictment of existing sociopolitical
structures to another viewer. Thus the degree of social comment in painting depends on the
emotiveness of the image in the context of individual beliefs and/or prejudices which the
spectator brings to his or her appraisal of art. The artist may or may not have intended to be
provocative in presenting his vision of an event or situation and may or may not have been
aware that his work could initiate contrary and passionately voiced opinions. Courbet's
political views are neither consistent nor lucidly articulated; he saw with a painter's and not
a politician's eye.
The issue of didacticism is further complicated by a consideration of critical response,
in Courbet's time - for example by Max Buchon who uses the image as a vehicle for verbal
propaganda - and today, by the interpretations of modern scholars. The views of the
former are motivated by personal experiences of politics, society, privilege, injustice and so
forth. The latter have an overview of 19th century French history which imparts objectivity,
but their own 20th century political and aesthetic stance, for instance a Marxist view of
history or a formalist view of art may colour their interpretation of historical art. Discussion
on paintings may therefore elucidate but may also introduce an interpretative bias. For this
reason, the artwork must remain the primary source of study and opinions about art should
be tested by direct reference to artworks.
The issue of critical perspectives is posed by Clark. Introducing his reasons for writing
an article on Courbet, he asks:
" Why do we need a new theory of the genesis and reception of Courbet's "realism?"
Because the available accounts fail to explain many of the mysteries which surround the
Salon. Why, for instance, did the Enterrement d Ornans become the focus of critical
fury while the Casseurs de Pierres remained relatively unscathed - even though its
imagery may appear to us more radical in style and more explicitly proletarian in
content? ... Why was there such a change in the whole tone and temper of criticism
between the mildly popular Un Apres-Diner a Ornans in the Salon of 1849, and the
"disgraceful" Enterrement of 1850-51? Why did Millet's Le Semeur, which again
seems to our eyes an image of the peasant just as violent and brutalized as anything in
Courbet, so completely escape critical spleen?."
Art does not exist in a vacuum. A work must be seen in relation to both the ideas
prevailing when it was first exposed to public reaction, and to current ideas and research.
Mere description of paintings is not helpful. Cognisance must be taken of all the means used
by the artist to manifest his intention. When reproductions are studied, the empirical data
must be noted so that the work being studied can be imagined at the correct scale. With the
Burial at Ornans, the scale is crucial if one is to comprehend the way in which Courbet
challenged the existing hierarchy of subject matter.
When one investigates the role of social comment in paintings by Daumier and Courbet,
one considers their entire oeuvre. Arguably Daumier's most blatant satire was reserved for
his journal lithographs where immediate viewer response was crucial. Possibly the images
in his paintings, being less dependent upon actual events, may retain the capacity to stir us
today when we cannot understand the particularities of the caricatures.
The label "realist" may hang awkwardly on Daumier's Don Quixote studies - which
may be better deemed "romantic"; but the universality of the Spanish knight may render
comment significant in contexts wider than those of 19th century French society.
Paintings of peasant life formed only a part of Courbet's output, and his work of the
1850s was the most controversial of his career. Any desire he may have had to challenge
convention, shock the bourgeois, and initiate socio-political change must always be assessed
against his objectives as a professional creator of images on canvas, produced as potentially
saleable merchandise, in a free enterprise system.
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* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa