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Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will examine Realism.
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An overview of Realism.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about realism.

As you watch the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you feel ready, you can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of lesson today, you'll be able to identify and to find today's key terms. To describe influences on the development of realism and modernism. Identify examples of a realist painting.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First key term is realism. An artistic movement beginning in France in the late 1800s characterized by honest representations of everyday situations and objects portrayed without bias.

Second Industrial Revolution. A phase of the Industrial Revolution that occurred during the second half of the 19th century. It involved technological innovations such the use of electricity and invention of the internal combustion engine.

Modernism. A movement in the arts that involves a break with tradition in emphasis on formal innovation. Unlike earlier movements, modernism focuses on the process of art-making as a subject in itself.

The big idea for today is that realism is the first movement associated with modernism, itself a movement that focused inward, making the art and the process of creating it subject matter in itself.

The artwork that we're looking at today comes from between 1849 and 1893. And the historical context of realism takes place, actually, over many years, and involves major economic developments such as the Second Industrial Revolution, where practices like assembly line automation became standard practice. That includes breakthroughs in science, such as the idea of natural selection and evolutionary theory by Charles Darwin. It also includes major sociological developments, including the formal establishment of the science of sociology by Comte, as well as the development and normalization of socialist ideas like communism from Karl Marx.

We'll be traveling to Paris, France, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, today.

So realism is a form of modernism. Modernism was a tendency in art that began during the second half of the 19th century. Artists during the Renaissance viewed the flatness of the support and visibility of the brush strokes as a limitation of painting. Modernist artwork, like realism, which we'll talk about in a nutshell, and impressionism, saw the embracing of this supposed limitation. Now this inward focus is fundamental to modernism, where making the art object and the process of art-making became a subject in and of itself.

Realism focused on producing scenes from everyday life. There's no artificiality or idealism. Like other modernists, realists broke from the tradition and perceived constraint of academic teaching. Realism was very much a reaction against the Academy. These are reasons why realism is considered the first movement associated with modernism, and in many ways the beginning of modern art itself.

So as I just mentioned, realism was a break from the Academy's focus on history painting and mythological scenes, and instead focused on subjects that could be actually observed. This includes subjects from everyday life and a real emphasis on scenes taken from contemporary life. Gustave Courbet, a self-proclaimed realist and socialist extolled the virtues of the working man in his paintings. The common man, whose back-breaking work like stone breaking, was a foundation upon which modern society could be built. His work is considered some of the best examples of realism, particularly his painting "The Stone Breakers." But there's nothing idealized or glamorous about it. It simply depicts a scene of human toil and arduous labor. The emphasis is on the labor of the men, rather than their individual faces, which is why you don't see them. It's also a sad portrayal of the fate of the common peasant according to Courbet. Youth and the older man represent the grim depiction of a life of labor. The old man's clogs and the young man's modern boots indicate the subtle suggestion of perpetuity. That this isn't a cycle that's going to change any time soon.

So suffice to say the Academy was less than pleased with the work of Courbet, particularly with his monumental life-size submission of the "Burial at Ornans." As opposed to earlier examples of burial portraits-- El Greco's "Burial of Count Orgaz" comes to mind-- there's nothing spectacular or spiritual about it. In fact, the person being buried isn't even shown. Just the hole. And the person that dug it is sitting on his knees, the gravedigger. Now just as in "The Stone Breakers," there's nothing idealized or glamorous about this work of art. It's just simply a slice of life. On one side are the grieving common people, and on the other side are the clergy, some of which are shown as bored or disinterested, like the little altar boy here, or this figure, this clergyman here. Just like at a real funeral.

Now it borders on the amusing in that respect, but wasn't appreciated at all by the Academy. In fact, they refused to show his paintings, resulting in Courbet opening his own gallery to showcase his work, naming it the Pavilion of Realism.

Another artist, Edouard Manet, created an uproar in scandal beyond that of Courbet in his depictions of common nude women, who were believed to be prostitutes rather than mythological figures. And they were probably right. This is compounded by the fact that Manet, like Courbet, painted the image on a huge canvas, something that was usually reserved for history paintings.

This painting, titled "The Luncheon in the Grass," was considered particularly inappropriate for how it seemed to reference and disrespect earlier works of art of a similar theme. The painterly style of the landscape feels rushed and almost an afterthought in its patchy brush strokes, and serves as a setting for the depiction of two young men, one of which was actually Manet's brother-- the guy in the hat-- and the nude women, supposedly prostitutes, accompanying them. What's always been funny to me is that it isn't the nudity that was considered offensive, but rather the social status of the women.

Another example of an artist breaking with the tradition of the Academy and the weakening influence of the Academy in general.

Another one of Manet's most famous and scandalous paintings is of the nude and supposed prostitute depicted in this art work called "Olympia." Now, Manet really seems to be striking as many nerves as he can in this work. A young woman reclines along a divan or bed, still wearing her sandals or shoes, and is waited on by a black servant bringing her flowers. Now it recalls Titian's painting of a reclining Venus, but rejects Titian's warm and bright colors. Her expression is much more authoritative, but also seems somewhat disinterested in the viewer. As opposed to Titian's Venus, who looks seductively out at the viewer. The painting of Venus was commissioned for a pleasure chamber of some nobleman.

So "Olympia" embodies a larger emphasis from artists like Manet and Courbet on the realistic over history or mythological paintings, and characterizes part of a broader realist tendency to portray workers, prostitutes, and the poor. Common people rather than political leaders, the aristocracy, or idealized images of classical subjects featuring mythological figures.

Now, realism also found a place in the American sphere artists of the 19th century. This painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner is one such example. Now, the overall style is very painterly. Brush strokes are very noticeable, and lends an air of vibrancy or energy to the painting that seems to be unaddressed-- or maybe even unaware-- to the two people portrayed within the painting. And this probably due to the deep interpersonal focus that Tanner created between the little boy and the elderly man.

Tanner was the first African American painter to become known internationally. He took a rather derogatory or degrading theme that was common at time of the banjo-playing African American entertainer and transformed into a really touching depiction of human connection, love, and patience.

Tanner's work is another example of the emerging modernist trend in art. Because of the rise of modernist styles like realism, impressionism, and others the academic style and influence that had been so pervasive in the eyes of this emerging group of artists slowly went into decline.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at out specific objectives to see if we've met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe influences on the development of realism in modernism? Can you identify examples of realist painting?

And the big idea for today is that realism is first movement associated with modernism, itself a movement that focused inward, making the art and the process of creating it subject matter in itself.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. We'll see you next time.

Notes on "Realism"

Key Terms


An artistic movement beginning in France in the late 1800's characterized by honest representations of everyday situations and objects, portrayed without bias.

Second Industrial Revolution

A phase of the Industrial Revolution that occurred during the second half of the 19th-century and involved technological innovations, such as the use of electricity and the invention of the internal combustion engine. 


A movement in the arts that involves a break with tradition and emphasis on formal innovation. Unlike earlier movements, modernism focuses on the process of art-making as a subject in itself.


The Stone Breakers; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gustave_Courbet_018.jpg Burial at Ornans; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Courbet,_Un_enterrement_%C3%A0_Ornans.jpg Luncheon in the Grass; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Manet,_Edouard_-_Le_D%C3%A9jeuner_sur_l%27Herbe_%28The_Picnic%29_%281%29.jpg Olympia; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3.jpg; The Banjo Lesson; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Banjo_Lesson.jpg; Image of Comte Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Auguste_Comte_by_Louis_Jules_Etex.jpg; Image of Darwin Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Darwin_seated_crop.jpg; Image of Marx Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Karl_Marx_001.jpg; Image of Assembly Line Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ford_assembly_line_-_1913.jpg