Realist Art and Its Greatest Artists

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Realist art, or Realism, is talking about a way of painting that seeks to reproduce what the artists sees out there, without trying to pretty it up or embellish it in any way. In fact, Realism has been around a pretty long time; it could easily be argued that artists like the Flemish primitives were producing realist art. 

The Mystic Lamb Alterpiece, upper panel,

by Jan van Eyck

The Mystic Lamb Alterpiece, detail

Just look at this detail from Van Eyck's Mystic Lamb altarpiece, painted in the late 15th century.  It seems to be so well done as to be "photographic", right?  But in fact, Realism means not only painting what you see without any tampering.  It today also means to take an unvarnished look at what life is about; this is why as early as the 17th century, starting with Caravaggio, painters started getting interested in "humble" people and themes.  It came into its own as a movement in the mid 19th century as art critics started recognizing that artists were refusing the self-importance of Romanticism and Neoclassicism, extending through to the end of the century and beyond.

In fact, they wanted to return to the study of Nature and humble subjects, whether critics called this the "triumph of ugliness" or not.  An essentially French movement at the start, it was not only about carefully recording Nature, but also a socio-political platform that urged society to turn its attention to its humbler ranks. 

Its founder was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), although one of its best-known was the illustrator Honoré Doré; indeed many of the first artists of Realism were illustrators.

Later in the century painters gathered in the hamlet of Barbizon near Fontainebleau, and there painted the landscapes in a Realist manner; this was the famous Barbizon School.

"The Lawyers", Honoré Daumier

Recognizing Realist Art

The Realists wanted their art to be accessible to everyone, even that part of the public that was not very informed about art.  It was part of their ideology that their subjects were never taken from mythology, literature or history; rather, they took for subject contemporaries in their daily lives, and especially at work, and often sought to portray the poor maintaining their dignity under miserable conditions.

I note once again that landscapes were also a popular subject, especially given the existence of the Barbizon School.

"Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl", Gustave Courbet

The realists didn't make their paintings with Neoclassical clearness; what I mean by that is that when you look at a Neoclassical painting it looks like you're looking through the painting with a very well-focused camera.  To see what I mean, you can look at some Neoclassical paintings here.  On the other hand, they didn't paint their paintings with expressive strokes either, that would blur the outlines; if they had done that, they felt, their interpretation would have been interfering with representing the subject honestly.

The subjects themselves, that is when they were people, were the opposite of the idealized figures in Neoclassicism.  In fact, the artists were trying to show what the effects of poverty, overwork, alchoholism and depravity, so the faces they portrayed were often rendered ugly.

Great Artists of Realist Art

67.  Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was the founder of Realism, which led the Romantic movement towards Impressionism and gave rise to the Barbizon School.

68.  Frenchman Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was a printmaker, illustrator and painter, best-known for his witty, observant caricatures of political figures, lawyers, and other figures of society.

69.  Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was one of the founders of the Barbizon School of Realist landscape painting.

70.  Another Frenchman, Edouard Manet (1832-1883), not to be confused with Claude Monet, was an important figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism.

Click here to look at Realist paintings on the Wiki Commons website.

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