Visual Art

Realism evolved in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Life wasn’t always pretty or happy. It could be downright dull, if not depressing. Artists looked to the working class and people performing everyday, often
boring, tasks as subjects for their artwork. Paintings broke the accepted compositional rules, cutting people off at the edges of the picture plane and placing people from different social classes at equal levels. The importance of capturing the moment and real life reached its peak with the invention of the camera during this period. After that, artists had the task of finding new meanings for their artwork.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)

Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet

Romanticism was still the accepted style of painting when the French artist, Gustave Courbet, came along and shook things up. He painted scenes that weren’t always pretty and activities that weren’t religious, mythological, or of important people. Courbet just wanted to record what common people did and what they looked like doing it. He picked everyday, ordinary people and places as subjects for his paintings. Courbet believed in painting life as it actually was. Many of his paintings are life-size, making the viewer feel they are participating in the painting. It seemed real, and that was his goal.

In Burial at Ornans, Courbet painted a funeral of an ordinary man on a huge 22- by 10-foot canvas. Courbet’s own grandfather had died recently, and that’s probably what inspired him to paint a funeral. Unlike previous paintings of funerals, there are no angels taking the dead man’s soul to heaven. There is not a lot of emotion in the crowd (no people overcome with grief). The people are basically plain and uninteresting. All the figures are lined up in a row, looking like they just showed up out of the respect for the dead person and would prefer to be elsewhere. They’re acting just like real people do.

Some other interesting facts about Courbet:

  • He was probably the first painter to use a palette best pocket knife instead of a brush.
  • He used thick paint, sometimes all over the canvas.
  • He spent the latter part of his life painting mostly landscapes.
  • He got into trouble in school for writing a guide on how to behave badly.


Edouard Manet (1832–1883)

Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet

Another French artist, Edouard Manet, worked to capture what everyday life was like in the city. In The Luncheon on the Grass, we have a painting of some people enjoying a picnic in the park. This painting was rejected by the judges of the Salon because of its “unfinished,” flat painting style and its controversial use of subject matter. It would not have been startling to see a painting of two fully clothed men lounging on the grass with a naked woman if it were done in the Classical Greek or Roman style. Romantic artists had painted people outdoors enjoying the company of gods, goddesses, nymphs, and satyrs. But the public was shocked to see these were just everyday people like themselves!

Manet came from a well-to-do family. He wasn’t a very serious student, but he really enjoyed his drawing class. When he decided to drop out of the navy and study to be a painter, his father wasn’t too happy. Manet took painting lessons from a respected artist trained at the Royal Academy in Paris, but he didn’t like the style he was being taught to paint. While Manet was a man who wanted to break rules in art, he also wanted recognition for his work. He kept switching from painting in a style that was popular, what we call Realism. He sent both types of paintings to the Salon, hoping he would get accepted (this would mean they liked his work). However, he was turned down a lot.

Manet’s artwork, like a photograph, looks like you’ve caught people in a moment in time. But sometimes, the figures are painted in a way that was not perfectly detailed like a photograph, as if Manet just wanted to suggest the figures were there. This was a new concept and was a big influence on the later Impressionists. The important aspect of Manet’s paintings is that he painted common people doing everyday things. That’s what makes him a Realist. He showed everyday life in the city.

In Gare Saint-Lazare, Manet shows a middle-class woman sitting in front of a fence at a train station with a sleeping dog and an open book in her lap. Maybe she heard Manet approach and looked up from her book. Like a lot of kids behave, the little girl isn’t interested in what’s going on between the adults. She’s more interested in the train blowing steam behind the fence. Like a snapshot, Gare Saint-Lazare captures a moment.

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