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Definition: realism as method

Realism (from french realisme and realis – material) — in its widest meaning is a truthful, objective and thorough reflection of actuality with specific means of the art. In art critics quite a few opinions on the term “realism” are presented. In the broadest sense, it’s perceived as one of major cultural tendencies that maintains best traditions of the world art and serves for spiritual and practical insight of the reality. In this case, the deepening into life, depiction of its important aspects are considered to be the grade of realism in a piece of art.

Tendency for realism become apparent in various kinds and genres of arts in different ways. Very often the impact power of a piece of art doesn’t correspond to its resemblance to a real object, naturalism of its replication. Sometimes even primitive art can be more realistic then academic painting. Realistic art has a huge toolset for the cognition and generalization of facts. It’s essential to remember about vitality of an image that doesn’t simply satisfy with shallow imitating, but penetrates into essence of life. An artist-realist matches up a form and a certain conception.

Definition: Realism as the artistic movement

In the process of development of arts realism gains certain historical versions with their peculiar methods: some signs of realism (referring to showing a model life-like) we can find as early as in antiquity – it’s enough to mention Roman portrait sculpture. Realism was one of the key issues of Renaissance and in the art of the Enlightenment. But, anyway, it wasn’t established as a self-sufficient creative purpose until the middle of the 19th cent., when the critical realism appeared. It was an artisitc movement, not a style, as there’s no realistic architecture (and a certain artistic phenomenon has to embrace all kinds of art to be considered a style). Critical realism for the first time investigated a personality in its connection with the contemporary society and its social position. This term was introduced by literary critic Champfleury for describing the art opposed to romanticism and academism.

Its main features:

  • Rationalism, equalization of psychology and consciousness, ignoring of subconscious processes.
  • Veracious, historical depiction of typical events and characters in typical situations.
  • Compliance to the reality is one of the measures of artistry, as artistry itself.
  • Temperance and actions of a hero are connected to his situation, living conditions.
  • Dramatization as the way of shaping the artistic truth.
  • Liberate compositioning.
  • Dominating of epic and prose genres, weakening of lyrical spirit.
  • Solving of problems is based on universal values.

Historical background of Realism

New perspective in art was dictated by the increasing tempo of life. Journalism that gained rapid popularity and emergence of photography – all that made the information more accessible to vast asses. The revolution of 1848 demolished all romatic illusions of French intelligents and became an important factor in the social processes not only in France, but all over Europe. The developments of 1848 had a direct influence on art. First of all, since then it was wider used for agitation and propaganda. That, in its own turn, led to flourishing of the most mobile kind of art – easel graphic and illustrative-journalistic, as the main element of satirical publications. The artists were actively engaged into impetuous social life. History shaped up a new hero that would soon become the main character of art – a laborer. And painters started searching for its monumental, solid image, but not anecdotal, like it had been before. Daily routine, hard work, simple pleasures of this new hero occurred in the center of artistic attention. New subjects caused critical attitude towards existing system.

Major concepts of the new art were formulated by painter and lithographer Gabriel Laviron and Bruno Galbaccio in “Le Salon de 1833” and were supported by many other thinkers of the 1848 generation. All of them put in the forefront the didactic function of art. As they affirmed, art had to favor the social progress, to be “the teacher of life”, so it had to be actual and, what’s important, comprehensible for the people. Realists hoped art would help in understanding all life collisions and to do that all idealization and embellishments in the art had to be put aside. A painter, or a sculptor, or a draughtsman should depict only what he knew and had before his eyes.

Realism in Fine Art

Realism in France

In French painting realism first revealed itself in landscape painting that, at first glance, was the most distanced from social concerns and tendentious genre. And here it started with the Barbizon school – a group of painters, who received their name after Barbizon village near Paris. It was their favorite place for making plein air etudes – the innovation of barbizonains, as masters of landscape had worked in their studious before the middle of the 19th cent.

Barbizonians was not mere a geographically tied definition, but historical one too. Some painters, like Charles-François Daubigny, never came to Barbizon, but demonstrated their interest in national French landscape. The core of the group were young Theodore Rousseau, Diaz de la Peña, Jules Dupré and Constant Troyon. They used their etudes for finalizing their canvases in the studios, so their paintings were marked by completeness and integrity of coloring. But they also preserved a vivid perception of nature. All of them were united by the desire for its grounded understanding and its tangible representation that didn’t hinder them from elaborating their creative individualities. Talking about landscape painters of the middle of the 19th cent., one of their prominent representatives was Camille Corot.

Critical realism as a new powerful movement manifested itself in genre scenes as well. It’s formation in this field was connected with the name of Gustave Courbet, well-known for his scenes of every-day life in his native commune Ornans. Jean-François Millet went even further, fully dedicating his oeuvre to the scenes of peasant farmers. Born in a peasant family, he always had this connection with the earth.

All historical events in France, since the revolution of the 1830 and up to the Franco-Prussian war, were fixed in the graphical art of one of the greatest masters – Honore Daumier. In the sphere of illustrations works by Gustav Dore, creator of rather gloomy fantasies on Biblical topics, “Lost Paradise” by Milton, are praised and reprinted even nowadays.

Realism In Italy

In Italy realism was absorbed by florentine Macchiaioli group (from Italina macchia ‑ spot) in 1850s. It was given its name by an unknown journalist of “Gazzetta del Popolo” and was primary used in a slighting sense. But later it was applied to define a liberate manner of painting with bright color spots. The Macchiaioli consisted of such artists as painters Giuseppe Abbati, Cristiano Banti, Telemaco Signorini, Odoardo Borrani, Vincenzo Cabianca, Vito D’Ancona, Serafino De Tivoli, Giovanni Fattori, Raffaello Sernesi, Silvestro Lega, sculptor Adriano Cecioni and others. Their meeting place was Café Michelangelo that still exists today. Almost all of macchiaioli members participated in national liberation movement, headed by Giuseppe Garibaldi. They were against stiff academism with its abstract narrativeness and suggested accentuation on the contemporaneity. Their main themes were episodes of the war for liberation, portraits of its heroes, genre and landscape painting. They often worked on plein aires, which allowed artists to master vividness, laconism, intentional randomness of composition and skillful combination of color spots. Macchiaioli had affected the whole Italian painting of the end of the 19th cent. By the 1880s the group had broken apart, and some of its members turned to impressionism.

Realism In Russia

In the Russian Empire principles of realism were promoted by Peredvizhniki (or the The Itinerants ). It was a creative group that, as well as realists in other countries, purposefully opposed itself to the official academism. The founders of the association (1870) were Ivan Kramskoi, Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Nikolai Ge and Vasily Perov. In their activity the Itinerants were inspired by ideology of narodnism (populism). It motivated them to start educational activity, specifically, by organizing travelling exhibitions. Their Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions was built on cooperation base.

The distinguishing traits of paintings by the Itinerants were the acute psychologism, clear social and class orientation, highly mastered typization, realism that was almost close to naturalism, and rather tragic world view.

Realism In the USA

If critical realism showed up in Europe in the middle of the 19th cent. and gradually lost its popularity by the end of the century, in the USA it only witnessed its forthcoming by this time. At the turn of the 19th and 20th cent. Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan and Everett Shinn became famous as the Ashcan school. They were illustrators in the Philadelphia Press, as photography still was unable to to react on the accidents operatively. That stimulated those young artists to dedicate their works to the life of poor and labor areas of New York, where they moved after giving up work in the newspaper in 1896. They made sketches of waifs, immigrants, boxers and other common characters of that time.

Random Realist Artists

Jean Francois Millet

Jean Francois Millet


Gustave Courbert

Gustave Courbet


Honore Daumier

Honore Daumier


Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot


Random Realist Paintings

Last Communion of St Lucy
Adoration of the Magi
The Countess of Valmont
Page of history Punishments of Victor Hugo
Hunting Birds at Night
Courbet in his Cell at Sainte Pelagie
The Oak at Flagey The Oak of Vercingetorix
King David Playing the Harp

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