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6.2: Realism (1848-1880)

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    During this period, revolutionary changes were happening throughout Europe, expanding nationalism and the interest in state borders tempered by the interconnections of the industrial revolution. As the population increased and the cities grew, agricultural production broadened to support the people's food needs, expanding the peasant labor and machinery needed to work the fields. Industrial manufacturing and distant trade markets required extensive labor in factories and demands for transportation systems to move raw materials and finished goods. Workers moved from small craft operations to laborers in large factories, an environment evolving into sweatshops. This period of the Victorian era was a time of strict discipline and morality, the advent of Darwinism and the theory of evolution, and the concept of an improved society through more democratic principles; free education for all, the vote by a secret ballot, legal trade unions, or a parliamentary form of government. Information was now available through cheap daily papers bringing the news to everyone.

    Starting in France, Realism artists tried to paint objective views of life around them, frequently coarse and violent. After the French Revolution, the people wanted democratic and representative changes in their lives and government; the Realists painted the life of the people around them, scenes of people working, peasants in the fields, life in the cafes, and naturalistic portrayals of the body. Artists were disillusioned trying to adhere to the artificial standards of the different salons and academies. Realism became the forerunner of the Impressionists, moving the bar away from the ideological and contrived works of Neoclassicism and Romanticism into depictions of real people. The dynamic brushstrokes and visible texture are essential in defining the painting. Realism did not mean painting with photographic reality; instead, Realism is determined by the subject matter, life as it happened to ordinary wealthy or poor citizens. Artists in this section include:

    • Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
    • Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1856-1942)
    • Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884)
    • Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938)
    • Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942)
    Interactive Element: Realism

    An overview of Realism art and how it differs from the previous Romanticism art.

    Rosa Bonheur

    Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), born in France, was one of the most well-known female artists of the nineteenth century. Her father was an artist and promoted art education for his children; all of Bonheur's siblings became artists. She did poorly in school, even failing her apprenticeship as a seamstress when she was only twelve. Art became her life, and animals were the subject matter she loved, sketching animals from books, models, and real life. She had many animals, visited zoos and slaughterhouses, and trampled through forests. Bonheur learned to draw animals based on their realistic look, forms, and motion, not an idealized vision. She was an early feminist and frequently dressed as a man when she wanted to paint in public places. Bonheur had to obtain a license from the French government, one of a few women to wear men's clothing. She traveled throughout Europe and America, painting animals, building her reputation, and even receiving the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

    Bonheur painted The Horse Fair (6.2.1) based on the frequent horse fairs held on the Boulevard de I'Hopital in Paris, a tree-lined street. Women were not allowed to sketch horses. Bonheur dressed as a man, only attending twice weekly to discourage attention. She captured how the horses moved, the flow of their manes and tails, and the rippled muscles, demonstrating her ability to capture each horse's authentic look and feel. Deep in the shadows, people watched the horses, waiting for the show while the bright white horses moved the viewer's eye around the painting.

    A horse fair with several horses and men outside
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Horse Fair (1852-55, oil on canvas, 244.5 x 506.7 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: The Horse Fair

    Artist Wayne Thiebaud reflects on Rosa Bonheur's "The Horse Fair" in this episode of The Artist Project—an online series in which artists respond to works of art in The Met collection.

    Four men driving a team of animals plowing a field
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ploughing in Nevers (1852-1855, oil on canvas, 244.5 x 506.7 cm) Public Domain

    The artwork, Ploughing in Nevers (6.2.2), portrays a vivid scene of oxen teams diligently working in the fields, their light-colored coats reflecting the soft sunlight. The painting is a tribute to the local agriculture and the farmers' laborious effort - highlighting the smooth, sinewy muscles of the oxen as they pull the plow through the fertile soil. The rough clods of earth left in the wake of the plow create a striking contrast, conveying the immense physical strain exerted by the cattle and their herders. This picturesque image was widely lauded for its celebration of rural life and the natural beauty of the countryside, starkly contrasting city life's perceived corruption and chaos.

    Interactive Element: Bonheur

    Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais (or The First Dressing), oil on canvas, 1849 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

    Anna Elizabeth Klumpke

    Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1856-1942) was born in San Francisco as one of eight children; her father was a wealthy realtor. She fractured her leg when she was three and again at age five. Although her mother took her to Germany for treatment, she remained permanently handicapped. She studied art, copying the masters at a museum in Luxembourg before going to Paris. Her first work entered the Salon and won her a prize for being an outstanding student, allowing her to continue to exhibit in the Salon. She admired and was inspired by the work of Rosa Bonheur and was determined to meet her. Klumpke set up a meeting with Bonheur by pretending she was an interpreter for someone interested in Bonheur's art. At the meeting, Bonheur remarked on the talent and success of Klumpke and her sisters, concluding by saying, "I admire the American ideas as to women's education. The foolish prejudice that girls are exclusively destined for marriage does not exist in your country as in mine. If I have been able to liberate myself from the prevailing national tradition, I feel I owe it to whatever talent heaven has bestowed upon me."[1]

    Klumpke communicated by letters for ten years with Bonheur and finally wrote to her inquiring about painting her portrait, asking only for a few sittings. Bonheur responded and invited her to come and stay at her home to complete the painting. Although they were thirty-four years apart in age after they met, they developed a close relationship, and she moved in with Bonheur. They both entered into a formal contract about their personal and professional arrangements; Klumpke painted portraits of Bonheur and wrote her biography. Bonheur built a studio for Klumpke on her estate. After Bonheur died, her entire estate was left to Klumpke, who established the Bonheur museum and art school and wrote a book about her life together.

    After Bonheur died, Klumpke continued to paint scenes or portraits of females. She painted three powerful portraits of Bonheur as well as drawings and sketches. Rosa Bonheur (6.2.3) depicts a pose sitting in front of an easel, ready to paint, the medal Order of the Legion of Honor on her jacket. She was 76 in the portrait and died a year later. The muted palette of grays and browns is offset by the bright silver-white color of Bonheur's hair, which is so finely rendered. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (6.2.4) was an early feminist, one of the organizers of the women's rights movement, focusing on the right of women to vote. The portrait of Stanton was her official painting and hung in the National Arts Gallery. Stanton had seen a picture of Klumpke's mother and thought it well done, picking her to paint the official Stanton portrait. The colors are like those done for Bonheur, with white hair contrasting as a halo for the faces.

    Portrait of a painter at her easel painting a horse on the canvas
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Rosa Bonheur (1898, oil on canvas, 117.2 x 98.1 cm) (Public Domain)

    Portrait of a woman sitting in a chair in a black dress with a few books
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1889, oil on canvas, 101 x 81.9 cm) (CC0 1.0)

    In the Wash-house (6.2.5) was first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1888. In 1898, Klumpke won the Temple Gold Medal at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts for the painting, the first female artist to win the award. The four young French women are gathered around the communal laundry, washing clothes and probably sharing the news and gossip of the day. The work was challenging, bent over with heavy wet clothes, the window providing light in the background. The dark foreground and clothing of the women contrast with the light in Klumpke's usual brown and gray tones.

    Four woman doing laundry over a hot wooden bucket
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): In the Wash-house (1888, oil on canvas, 67 x 75 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Ana Elizabeth Klumpke

    Anna Elizabeth Klumpke was an American portrait and genre painter born in San Francisco, California, United States. She is best known for her portraits of famous women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Rosa Bonheur.

    Marie Bashkirtseff

    Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884) was born in Russia in an area now Ukraine. Her family was wealthy and part of the Russian nobility. Her parents divorced when she was only two years old, and Bashkirtseff spent her childhood traveling around Europe with her mother. From an early age, she demonstrated her musical talent only to have her voice destroyed by illness. Bashkirtseff turned her skills to art and attended the only academy in Paris to accept women, the Académie Julian. Although Bashkirtseff died from tuberculosis at an early age, she completed a large body of work. Unfortunately, much of her work was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. Bashkirtseff was also a writer and wrote an extensive journal about herself. Because she was so young and knew she was dying, Bashkirtseff wanted to be remembered for her words and for expressing her desire for glory. Bashkirtseff wrote in her diary every day from when she was fourteen until six days before she died using 106 notebooks.[2]

    In the Studio (6.2.6) is a painting demonstrating the education process for female artists. The Académie Julian had become the most important place for women to receive proper training, and the academy attracted women worldwide. Women could never paint a nude or receive instruction on painting the body. In the image, the studio is full of women. The model is still only semi-nude and not an adult. The artists are painting or sketching, some full figures and others only the model's upper half. Bashkirtseff's painting is incredibly detailed and realistic. The movement in the room and discussions among the artists are visible. Bashkirtseff demonstrates the tenets of Realism as each artist is a unique image in action, any specific person worthy of a single painting. Bashkirtseff was vocal about women deserving the same facilities and opportunities as male painters.

    The painting titled "The Meeting" (6.2.7) presents a bustling urban environment where six young boys are gathered together in a circle. They are in the midst of a lively discussion surrounding an object being held by the tallest among them. Their clothing suggests that they are from a working-class background, which is further emphasized by their gritty surroundings. Within the location of the painting, we can see a tall fence that seems to tower over the scene, adding to the sense of a confined and limited environment. Upon closer inspection, we can also see a solitary girl standing on the outskirts of the group of boys. This detail is fascinating, as some historians suggest that Bashkirtseff, the artist responsible for the piece, was a committed feminist. It is possible that this was a deliberate inclusion to highlight how women were often marginalized and kept at a distance from male-dominated societies. The painting provides an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of social interaction and serves as a powerful commentary on the cultural norms of the time.

    Art classroom with many female students painting a young male model in a loin cloth
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): In the Studio (1881, oil on canvas, 188 x 154 cm) Public Domain
    A group of young boys in a circle against a fence with a young girl to the extreme right
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): The Meeting (1884, oil on canvas, 193 x 177 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Marie Bashkirtseff

    Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-84) painted 'In the Studio' over the winter of 1880-81. It shows women art students at work at the Académie Julian, the art studio where Bashkirtseff was herself a student. This film tells the story of the artist and the painting.

    Elizabeth Nourse

    Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938) was from Ohio. She and her twin sister were the last of ten children. When she was fifteen, Nourse was admitted to the McMicken School of Design for seven years. Although her parents died when Nourse was young, she went to New York in 1882 and Paris in 1887. Paris was the center for artists around the world. Nourse lived mainly in Paris while traveling throughout Europe and North Africa, painting portraits of people she met. She was very successful in Europe and remained there during World War I, never returning to live in the United States. A reviewer at one of the exhibitions in the Salon stated, "no American woman stands so high in Paris today as Miss Nourse. Indeed, she is one woman painter of our country…who ranks in the world as a painter and not as a woman who paints."[3] Nourse was the second American female artist after Mary Cassatt to gain preeminently amid the male-dominated Parisian art world. Nourse was known for her technical and visionary skills. Her art was shown in worldwide exhibitions, winning accolades and awards. Women were usually considered "Sunday painters" who married or were teachers and never produced a profound body of work. During the Victorian age, men gathered in cafes, an essential part of the artistic and social life and a path denied to women. It was difficult for the ladies to form relationships with other artists, primarily male artists. They were successful as a professional artist and earned a good living without teaching or getting married.

    Nourse's work was based on images of women at work and people living in rural areas. Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince) (6.2.8) was a portrait of a man she encountered in her travels to Africa. He is looking off to the side instead of straight at the viewer. Nourse relied on her talent with the brush to create strokes defining the details of his clothing. His white headdress highlights the dark skin of his face. Nourse used different grays throughout the painting, the flat background, part of his clothing and to produce the folds in his clothes. Red brought a vivid color accent to the image. La Mere (6.2.9) was the first painting Nourse submitted to be juried at the Salon. The Salon hung their exhibitions based on paintings they considered esteemed and those less impressive. According to their standards, the respected, or most important, were hung "on the line" or the place most viewed. La Mere was hung on the line despite being a woman; this was her first submission. The woman in the painting wears the clothing of the lower class. Her face is in the shadows as she looks lovingly at the baby. Nourse used permutations of lavenders, mauves, and blues. The background and the woman's dress are dark, allowing the light to bounce off the brighter skin tones.

    man sitting with a white scarf tied by a blue rope on his head with a tan colored robe
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince) (1897, oil on canvas, 81.2 x 60.3 cm) (Public Domain)

    A woman sitting wearing a maroon blouse and green skirt and blue apron holding a baby in her lap
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): La Mere (The Mother) (1888, oil on canvas, 115.5 x 81.2 cm) (Public Domain)

    Interactive Element: Elizabeth Nourse

    Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), United States, A Mother (Une mère), 1888, oil on canvas.

    Cecilia Beaux

    Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was in Pennsylvania. Her father was a wealthy silk manufacturer, and her mother was from a prominent and wealthy New York family. Tragedy struck the family when Beaux's mother died twelve days after giving birth. Beaux's father left for France, leaving Beaux and her sister to be raised by aunts and grandmother. Beaux learned to play piano when she was young and began to paint after receiving lessons from a nearby relative who had a studio. Female students could still not paint anatomy with live models and had to rely on plaster casts to develop perspective. She attended school in Philadelphia and then taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the first woman to teach there. Beaux's work was well received, and she had clients in the United States and Europe. The First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, presented her with a gold medal. She stated Beaux was "the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world."[4]

    Beaux's work was a mixture of portraiture and figure painting. In the painting of Dorothea and Francesca (6.2.10), she created a complete composition, not focusing on either figure, only the pair's movements. The two girls were dancing as Beaux captured the moment the young girl learned how to point her toe correctly. Beaux used the dark background to counter the pastel colors of the girls' dresses. Although the girls' dresses appear pink and white, Beaux used blue to create the deep folds in the fabric of the dresses. Both girls have their hair loosely hanging, their faces looking down at their legs. Ernesta (6.2.11) depicts Beaux's niece holding the nurse's protective hand. The nurse is only shown from the waist down, the length and scale of the apron setting the relative scale of the tiny child. Beaux masterfully used gray blues to develop the deep folds in the clothing. The little girl's dress glows brightly against the dark background.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Dorothea and Francesca (1898, oil on canvas, 203.5 x 16.8 cm) Public Domain

    A painting of a little girl in a white dress with a pink hat.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Ernesta (Child with Nurse) (1894, oil on canvas, 128.2 x 96.5 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Cecilia Beaux

    Cecilia Beaux was born on 1 May 1855 and died on 17 September 1942; she was an American society portraitist whose subjects included First Lady Edith Roosevelt, Admiral Sir David Beatty, and Georges Clemenceau. Trained in Philadelphia, she went on to study in Paris, strongly influenced by two classical painters, Tony Robert Fleury and William Adolphe Bouguereau, who avoided avant-garde movements. She resisted impressionism and cubism, remaining a strongly individual figurative artist. Beaux became the first woman teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was awarded a gold medal for lifetime achievement by the National Institute of Arts and Letters and honored by Eleanor Roosevelt as "the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world."

    [1] Klumpke, A. (1940). Memoirs of an Artist, Wright & Potter Printing Co., p.30.

    [2] Retrieved from

    [3] Retrieved from

    [4] Retrieved from

    This page titled 6.2: Realism (1848-1880) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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