Art History: The Realism Movement

Dakota Crawford

Throughout history, art has progressed and grown along with cultures and civilizations. For centuries, art has been shaped by the current events of the time, and realism is no exception. The realism movement was different from many others before it for the fact that it marked a transition from idealistic art forms to real moments in time, and depicted real life subjects and scenes, rather than strictly idealistic worlds. From the late 18th century into the 19th, an English artist by the name of John Constable became famous for his depictions of rural landscapes. His painting Wivenhoe Park, Essex, depicts the historic urban park through the artist’s eye in nature. A snapshot of the scene, which could arguably be seen as an early version of the modern photograph, or rather one of the inspirations behind it. Realism became increasingly popular as it entered France During the French revolution in the 1840s, rising slowly and evolving with artists such as Gustave Courbet with works such as Burial at Ornans which captured the scene of a funeral which depicts a somber scene of grievous citizens and family. The movement had risen in popularity by 1848. For instance, many consider realism to be the beginning of the era of modern art in France, with its new ideas that subjects no longer had to be of such high standards of beauty and could depict the real, still life moment in time or subjects in action. During my research I came across Jules Breton’s The End of Working and was amazed by his shockingly realistic portraits and scenes of rural farm life. Breton was born in Courrieres, France in 1827.

The Realism Movement had started in France in the 1850’s, shortly after the French Revolution in 1848, also known as the February Revolution. This was one of many instances of retaliation against the July Monarchy which was led by Louis Phillipe I. In turn, this led to the creation of the French Second Republic, which was led by President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. In 1851, after a proposal that would allow the president to serve more than one term was rejected, Louis-Napoléon had deployed a military coup d’état which resulted in the fall of the Second republic. In the following year, he is named Emperor of the Second Empire.

The main cause for retaliation was that the public no longer wanted artwork and literature that featured such exaggerated emotions or drama. Instead, depictions of ordinary life were what weighed in favour. Artisans such as Gustave Courbet, who was known as an innovator in Realism, painted figurative compositions, landscapes and seascapes. His work addressed social issues and the harsh working conditions of the poor. One example of this is in his painting The Stone Breakers (1849-50) in which two men are seen hammering away at stones. This painting reminded society that of what they wished to keep hidden away: a poor, labour intensive life that should not be broadcasted. The term “Realism” said to have originated with Courbet. One other artist that fueled the fire of the Realism movement was Jean-François Millet. Though he lived in grim poverty in Fontainebleau forest in Barbizon, there, he painted his most famous works, including The Gleaners (1857), Evening Prayer (1857-1859), and The Sower (1850). Millet portrayed the gravity, hardship, and dignity of the common agricultural labourers. His humanity towards the peasant life deeply impressed many painters, including Vincent Van Gogh.

An artist that I am personally drawn to is Rosa Bonheur. A French realist artist and one of few female sculptors. Bonheur is widely considered to have been the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century. She gained much of her success after a French government commission, Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work was the monumental Horse Fair which was completed in 1855. It measured eight feet by sixteen feet wide. Its subject is the Horse Market held in Paris on the tree-lined boulevard de l’Hôpital.

I chose the realism style because the piece that I have created is in the same realm. Realism aims to portray an honest reproduction of the environment. When creating my piece, this was my main goal, to depict scenery in its true form. For instance, let us observe the clouds. I wanted to instill the feeling of sombreness. We generally view clouds to be light, and soft figures in the sky, but I wanted to paint them in a different, literal, light. On them, we see a dark undertone as they roll through the sky, as if they were storm clouds. This, to me, gives the impression that, though we may often see things in a bright spotlight, there will always be a darker side to things. Such was the reality of the Realist movement: hiding away the unwanted portions of society due to their comparisons of the brighter side.


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