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. Realism emerged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 that overturned the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and developed during the period of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As French society fought for democratic reform, the Realists democratized art by depicting modern subjects drawn from the everyday lives of the working class. Rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the exotic themes of Romanticism, Realism was based on direct observation of the modern world. In keeping with Gustave Courbet‘s statement in 1861 that “painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things,” Realists recorded in often gritty detail the present-day existence of humble people, paralleling related trends in the naturalist literature of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert. The elevation of the working class into the realms of high art and literature coincided with Pierre Proudhon’s socialist philosophies and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, which urged a proletarian uprising.
Courbet (1819–1877) established himself as the leading proponent of Realism by challenging the primacy of history painting, long favored at the official Salons and the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy. The groundbreaking works that Courbet exhibited at the Paris Salons of 1849 and 1850–51—notably A Burial at Ornans (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and The Stonebreakers (destroyed)—portrayed ordinary people from the artist’s native region on the monumental scale formerly reserved for the elevating themes of history painting. At the time, Courbet’s choice of contemporary subject matter and his flouting of artistic convention was interpreted by some as an anti-authoritarian political threat. Proudhon, in fact, read The Stonebreakers as an “irony directed against our industrialized civilization … which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor.” To achieve an honest and straightforward depiction of rural life, Courbet eschewed the idealized academic technique and employed a deliberately simple style, rooted in popular imagery, which seemed crude to many critics of the day. His Young Women from the Village (40.175), exhibited at the Salon of 1852, violates conventional rules of scale and perspective and challenges traditional class distinctions by underlining the close connections between the young women (the artist’s sisters), who represent the emerging rural middle class, and the poor cowherd who accepts their charity.
When two of Courbet’s major works (A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio) were rejected by the jury of the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, he withdrew his eleven accepted submissions and displayed his paintings privately in his Pavillon du Réalisme, not far from the official international exhibition. For the introduction to the catalogue of this independent, one-man show, Courbet wrote a Realist manifesto, echoing the tone of the period’s political manifestos, in which he asserts his goal as an artist “to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation.” In his autobiographical The Painter’s Studio (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Courbet is surrounded by groups of his friends, patrons, and even his models, documenting his artistic and political experiences since the Revolution of 1848.
During the same period, Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) executed scenes of rural life that monumentalize peasants at work, such as Sheep Shearing Beneath a Tree (40.12.3). While a large portion of the French population was migrating from rural areas to the industrialized cities, Millet left Paris in 1849 and settled in Barbizon, where he lived the rest of his life, close to the rustic subjects he painted throughout his career. The Gleaners (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), exhibited at the Salon of 1857, created scandal because of its honest depiction of rural poverty. The bent postures of Millet’s gleaners, as well as his heavy application of paint, emphasize the physical hardship of their task. Like Courbet’s portrayal of stonebreakers, Millet’s choice of subject was considered politically subversive, even though his style was more conservative than that of Courbet, reflecting his academic training. Millet endows his subjects with a sculptural presence that recalls the art of Michelangelo and Nicolas Poussin, as seen in his Woman with a Rake (38.75). His tendency to generalize his figures gives many of his works a sentimental quality that distinguishes them from Courbet’s unidealized paintings. Vincent van Gogh greatly admired Millet and made copies of his compositions, including First Steps, after Millet (64.165.2).
The socially conscious art of Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) offers an urban counterpart to that of Millet. Daumier highlighted socioeconomic distinctions in the newly modernized urban environment in a group of paintings executed around 1864 that illustrate the experience of modern rail travel in first-, second-, and third-class train compartments. In The First-Class Carriage (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), there is almost no physical or psychological contact among the four well-dressed figures, whereas The Third-Class Carriage (29.100.129) is tightly packed with an anonymous crowd of working-class men and women. In the foreground, Daumier isolates three generations of an apparently fatherless family, conveying the hardship of their daily existence through the weary poses of the young mother and sleeping boy. Though clearly of humble means, their postures, clothing, and facial features are rendered in as much detail as those of the first-class travelers.
Best known as a lithographer, Daumier produced thousands of graphic works for journals such as La Caricature and Le Charivari, satirizing government officials and the manners of the bourgeoisie. As early as 1832, Daumier was imprisoned for an image of Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’ Gargantua, seated on a commode and expelling public honors to his supporters. Daumier parodied the king again in 1834 with his caricature Past, Present, Future (41.16.1), in which the increasingly sour expressions on the three faces of Louis-Philippe suggest the failures of his regime. In the same year, Daumier published Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834, in the journal Association Mensuelle (20.23). Though Daumier did not witness the event portrayed—the violent suppression of a workers’ demonstration—the work is unsparing in its grim depiction of death and government brutality; Louis-Philippe ordered the destruction of all circulating prints immediately after its publication.
As a result of Courbet’s political activism during the Paris Commune of 1871, he too was jailed. Incarcerated at Versailles before serving a six-month prison sentence for participation in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, Courbet documented his observations of the conditions under which children were held in his drawing Young Communards in Prison (1999.251), published in the magazine L’Autograph, one of a small number of works inspired by his experiences following the fall of the Commune.
Like Millet, Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) favored rural imagery and developed an idealizing style derived from the art of the past. Similar in scale to Courbet’s works of the same period, Bonheur’s imposing Horse Fair (87.25), shown at the Salon of 1853, is the product of extensive preparatory drawings and the artist’s scientific study of animal anatomy; her style also reflects the influence of such Romantic painters as Delacroix and Gericault and the classical equine sculpture from the Parthenon. Édouard Manet and the Impressionists were the immediate heirs to the Realist legacy, as they too embraced the imagery of modern life. By the 1870s and 1880s, however, their art no longer carried the political charge of Realism.
Finocchio, Ross. “Nineteenth-Century French Realism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rlsm/hd_rlsm.htm (October 2004)
Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
Nochlin, Linda. Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848–1900: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.