The world was changing dramatically in the late 18th century. In North America, the British colonies had successfully revolted against the English empire and formed the United States of America. Fueled by this success, Europeans began to feel a strong desire for change, most notably in France, where the search for liberty led to the bloody French Revolution, which lasted from 1788 until 1799. At the same time, populations were starting to rapidly expand, and science and technology were producing the engines and tools to make the Industrial Revolution possible.
It was in this atmosphere of change that a new artistic movement was born; a movement that wanted to view the world around it in a different way. Prior to this era, works of art commonly exemplified idealized scenes from historic events, or placed the subject in larger-than-life, heroic circumstances. Artists of the new movement wanted to show life as it really existed; its triumphs as well as failures; its beauty as well as its baser attributes. These artists were a part of the new movement: Realism.
As the name of the movement implies, Realism was an artistic movement toward attempting to capture the subject of the artwork in a true-to-life manner. Stated simply, realist artists sought to produce accurate and objective portrayals of the ordinary, observable world, with a focus on the lower classes and with a critique of the established social and political order (MindEdge, 2012). Considered by many to be the father of Realism is the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).
In his life-sized depiction of two workmen he met along the roadside called The Stonebreakers (1849-50), we see the hallmarks of the Realist movement. (Courbet, 1850) Not only does Courbet pay careful attention to the detail in order to “paint as he sees it”, but he treats the subject matter with almost reverent respect. The laborers are not being extolled as heroic figures in an epic struggle, as would be expected in a more Romantic-style work of art. Instead, the two workmen are seen busy at a most ordinary task, that of breaking and moving heavy stones by the roadside.
The simple act of everyday, hard labor is glorified and given a dignity that transcends heroism. This new-found, at least for the time period, respect for the common person and his or her struggles and successes in everyday life, as well as the desire to depict those struggles and successes with accuracy, are the true hallmarks of Realism. The paint had hardly dried on the early works of the Realist movement when another group of artists began to focus on a different aspect of artistic expression.
This new technique was begun by the French artist Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883). Manet was a Realist painter who also wanted to bring truth to the color and light involved in his paintings. Manet and others of this new style had found that, rather than mixing colors on the palette and applying this mixture to the canvas, by juxtaposing different colors close together on the canvas, a more intense hue could be produced. This caused the painting have an almost unfinished look to them, especially when viewed from close range.
This effect, along with the treatment of light on the subjects to capture time, motion and emotion in daily life and nature, is a key element of Impressionism. One of the most well-known of the Impressionist painters was Claude Monet (1840 – 1926). His work, Impression, Sunrise (1872), is quite characteristic of the Impressionist movement. (Monet, 1872) This depiction of a harbor scene in France is done in very loose brushstrokes, suggesting the subject matter rather than clearly defining it.
The painting creates a “feeling” of water and boats in the early morning. This treatment of the subject and the light illuminating it gave art critic Louis Leroy the idea, in 1872, to ridicule the painting using its own name against it; implying that the impression he perceived was that the work was incomplete. While his critique has not proven to stand the test of time, his description of the work did help to label the artistic movement Impressionism. How do Realism and Impressionism compare? The choice of subject matter is often similar.
Artists of both schools often chose scenes from everyday life and attempted to portray them on the canvas. While Courbet’s, The Stonebreakers, does show us clearly delineated characters in a realistically depicted scene, and Monet’s, Impression, Sunrise, imparts the “feeling” of the scene and allows the viewer to build context around that feeling, both paintings pay homage to a common, uncomplicated activity with a certain dignity and respect. In this sense, Impressionism can be seen as a natural extension of the Realist movement.
Impressionism took Realism in another direction, however, with its unique treatment of light on the subject matter and in its coloring technique. This allowed Impressionist painters to capture feelings of motion, time and emotion in their art while continuing the Realist’s quest to examine the beauty in everyday life. As can be seen with an examination of the various movements in art history, Realism artists reacted to the fanciful, larger-than-life depictions of subjects in the Romantic period by turning toward detailed, “as you see it” renderings of the life and times of the common man and his surroundings.
Impressionism, resonating with the tenets of Realism, took the movement even further, seeking to portray, not only life as we know it, but also life as we experience it. This opening up of the artistic mind to the possibilities of greater experimentation and more liberal viewpoints can be seen as the first salvo in an assault on the sterile, regimented ideology of the more traditional schools of artistic thought. The cracks created in the armor of traditional art styles allowed for future generations of artists to explore even further into their imaginations in order to redefine art in the modern era.