Saturday Art: Realism Supplanted Romanticism, Commoners its Subject

The Gleaners by Millet

The Gleaners by Millet

(Picture courtesy of Lynn at

As in the past few weeks I’ve presented Cubism, along with artists that were part of that movement and associated non-representational schools of art, today in honor of the Greek overturn of imposed austerity, I’m going to the art movement that participated in the revolutionary times in France and also the U.S.    Realism in French art proclaimed the ascendancy of working class people and moved away from devoting canvas to idealised lives only available to the moneyed classes.  Major proponents were Courbet, Daumier, Corot and Millet, who rejected the French Academy and portrayed the working class that kept the aristocracy afloat.

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’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 value of labor and life of common people overcomes the domination of the elites when we value humanity.   It gives us democracy and prosperity itself.   These are times to get back to reality in our value systems.

(Picture courtesy of jean louis mazieres at

Memories of Mortfontaine by Corot

Memories of Mortfontaine by Corot

(Picture courtesy of Burcu Y at

Poor Woman of the Village by Courbet

Poor Woman of the Village by Courbet

(Picture courtesy of Ashley van Haeften at

Les Fricoteaur Politiques by Daumier (in Charivaree)

Les Fricoteaur Politiques by Daumier (in Charivari)

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.