In relation to the fine arts the term realism
has conveyed a number of different meanings. Until the end of the 19th century it most often connoted
naturalism, or the representation of the external world as it is actually seen. Such an approach stresses
perceptual experience as opposed to suggestive expression through metaphor or abstraction. In this sense,
the term may be used to describe the naturalism of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
and his followers, which appeared at the end of the 16th century.
During recent decades of the 20th century the term
realism has been used to describe the movement away from abstraction and toward representational art.
The same word, however, is also used to describe abstract art that sees reality as inner truth and opposes
"mere appearances." The art-historical definition of realism originated in the movement that was dominant
primarily in France from about 1840 to 1870-80 and that is identified particularly with the work of Gustave
Courbet. The main precedents for 19th-century French realism are found in the work of artists painting in
the tradition of Caravaggio. Realism, however, was decidedly an outgrowth of its particular time -- one of
great political and social upheaval. This unrest stirred the realists to reject prevailing canons of
academic and romantic art and to undertake instead a nonescapist, democratic, empirical investigation of
life as it existed around them. They painted ordinary people leading their everyday lives. Although other
artists had depicted similar subjects in earlier times, the realists took a fresh and unemotional view.
Realism was most emphatically proclaimed in 1855, when
Courbet, having been rejected for the Paris Exposition, arranged a private showing of his paintings that
centered on his huge The Artist's Studio (1855; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). He also distributed
a manifesto of realism outlining his program. Among the other realists were Honoré Daumier, most
noted for his incisive mockery of the petty bourgeoisie, and Jean François Millet, whose peasant
scenes are more reflective in tone than those of Courbet. The early works of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas
(1860s and '70s) are realist, and, like Courbet's, contain elements that prefigure impressionism. The art
of the Pre-Raphaelites in England and of Adolf von Menzel in Germany is also related to the realist movement.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Linda Nochlin, Realism (1971) and Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900 (1966);
Theodore Reff, ed., Exhibitions of Later Realist Art (1981);
James H. Rubin, Realism and Social Vision in Courbet and Proudhon (1981).
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