Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

11.3: Realism (1848 – 1870)

  • Page ID
    31936
  • As the Romanticism period dominated the first half of the 19th century and Realism dominated the second half. The name Realism itself implies the type of art, beginning as a way to paint photographically, with precise detail using the occupational pursuits of the peasants, the current rage by artists as the subject to paint. Paris transformed a medieval jumble of streets and narrow alleyways to an impressive metropolitan center with expansive streets and multi-class residences. An emerging middle class was transforming the look of Paris, and the citizens promenaded down the boulevards to shop, socialize and dine, a reflection of higher income and additional leisure time.

    The father of Realism was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), a French artist who lived in Paris during a time of significant change. Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) (11.6) is one of Courbet's most controversial paintings depicting two women in suggestive entwinement on a bed of beautifully rendered textiles. Courbet used subtle coloring to define the curves of the women, one with loose, dark hair, the other with red curly hair. After Le Sommeil was displayed, many artists copied the lesbian theme, the duplication helping to lower the taboos accompanying gay relationships in Paris.

    11.6 Le Sommeil

    Swimming Hole (11.7), the painting of the American realist painter and fine arts educator, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), depicted an American genre painting, the all-male nude group swimming in a small lake, anywhere, USA. Eakins also defied the narrow-minded Victorian arrogance towards nudity. The human body was challenging to portray, however accurately, he masterfully rendered six complex figures, each one seemingly in motion. The male nude form had disappeared since the renaissance, and now it was reemerging.

    790px-Swimming_hole.jpg
    11.7 Swimming Hole

    If Courbet painted realistic women, Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was the painter of realistic animals, one of the greatest celebrated female painters of the 19th century. Bonheur grew up a precocious young girl at the side of her father, who was an artist. At age 14, she started sketching in the Louvre, learning the fundamentals of classical painting and the foundation for painting Plowing in the Nivernais (11.8). The blue sky occupies half the painting, the enormous, aligned oxen pulling a plow, creating a contrapuntal slope to the hill. The painting is exceptionally realistic; the viewer might nearly smell the fresh dirt turned over by the plow. Bonheur painted hundreds of animals in their natural habitats and is best known for her horse paintings, especially The Horse Fair (11.9). Sales of horses were held on a street in Paris, traders bringing their horses to bargain for sales. To access and sketch the horses, Bonheur had to dress as a man, as women were not allowed to enter the slaughterhouses.

    11.8 Plowing in the Nivernais
    11.9 The Horse Fair

    The sea provided many scenes for the Realistic artist to paint, and Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is considered one of the great American landscape painters and printmakers. Fog Warning (11.10) puts the viewer right into the rowboat, the fisherman searching beyond the swell of the waves, targeting the distant ship he needs to reach before the fog rolls in, and he becomes disoriented. The dark and stormy sea off the coast of Newfoundland appears callous and vacant with foam on the breakers, a moment of danger if we fell into the water.

    800px-Winslow_Homer_-_The_Fog_Warning_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
    11.10 Fog Warning

    “Shocking” was the word used to describe Manet’s Olympia in 1865 when it was first unveiled.

    Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French painter and a fundamental artist transitioning art from Realism to Impressionism. Olympia (11.11) is a reclining nude woman lying on the bed covered in silky white satin sheets; however, it is not her nudity deemed to be offensive – it was her gaze that shocked the audiences. A servant, hidden in the background, cradles a bouquet, presumably from a suitor, the black cat arching its back on the foot of her bed, concealed in the shadows. Goya's nude Maja started directly at the viewer, Olympia appears confrontational, as if she is staring at the unseen fantasizer. "The critical reaction to Olympia was decidedly negative. Only four critics out of sixty were favorably disposed to the picture…"

    800px-Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3.jpg
    11.11 Olympia