8 April 2018
When examining early 19th century Modernism with 21st century eyes, it is hard to imagine how much controversy these pioneering artists endured just because of their insistence on prioritizing their personal technique and form. Courbet, Daumier, and Manet were the prime members of the early avant-garde art movement after the Revolution of 1848. Realism, an art movement during the 19th-century, was formed when ordinary individuals doing everyday labor became the primary subject of art. Realist artists were impassioned by presenting social inequality, and rejected scholastic ideals such as mythological and biblical narratives that were often highly regarded in the academic canon. Due to the revolting against the superficial context of idealized classicism, there was continuous dissension on the topic of patronage. Realists strove not only to place the working class on a higher pedestal than most artists would, but to alter the gaze of the public that were concerned with beauty and fiction. Thus, rejecting the convention of only wealthy patrons being the subject of portraiture. Art critics were frequently displeased with the idea of letting truth and reality break through the stereotypical mold of academic art. In this visual arts and social engagement essay, the study of the social conflict within the realms of the chronological timeline and progression of Realism will be examined to understand the socially concerned artists and their endeavors to change the ways of seeing art under the scope of patronage and accustomed judgements.
Realism emerged directly after the Revolutions of 1848, in which Louis Philippe, leader of the Orleanist party, renounced his throne and the French Second Republic was declared. After the 1789 French Revolution, France was going through a never-ending cycle of drastic changes towards the country and the government. From the ongoing socio-economic crisis in France, the political institutions were more concerned with the the open mind of taking liberal or democratic ideals into consideration, which was unsuitable at the time when industrialization was beginning. (Berger & Spoerer, pg. 294). Along with the socio-economic crisis in France, was a food shortage where the overt population was increasing and grains were becoming overpriced. Class conflict was arising as low-income workers were not able to feed their families after working extraneous labor daily.
Long before avant-garde art was arising and becoming widespread for all audiences to see, an artist named Honoré Daumier had already grasped the preconceived goals that the Realism art movement would further acquire. Daumier was provoked by social injustices and class inequality to the point where he was creating caricatures and lithographs that depicted realistic scenarios. An infamous example is Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834 (1834), an illustration that refers to the Rue Transnonain protests of France in 1834 in response to the massacres of innocent men, women, and children. Rue Transnonain depicts a brutal scene with the violent aftermath of an old, dead man, sitting atop of a baby, with a slaughtered woman in the background on the left. The lithograph that Daumier produced sympathized with those who were murdered, and presented the horrific context of the painting as a moment of desolation for the press to see. The explicit emotional distress in the backdrop of the working-class as the main subject caused an uprival, in which government officials confiscated the stone in which the lithograph was used to mass-produce, and stricter censorship laws were enacted. (Meeks, Yale University Art Gallery)
The garnered appreciation of history paintings dominated the universe of art long before the 19th century, and the public idealized compositions that was dominated by grandiose subject matter. At the well established and notable art academies, ancient classical art was highly cultivated in by those surrounding it. This often was the criterion that many art students needed to meet in order to fulfill the expectations of the academicians. In an essay published through the Met by Jason Rosenfeld, Rosenfeld sums up the overall objectives and mission of the Salon and the Royal Academy during the 19th century. Rosenfeld explains that the semi-annual or annual exhibitions were an excellent resource for young artists to network with patrons to hypothetically receive an opportunity to paint for the clientele. The goals of the the Salon and the Royal Academy would later become subverted as the preconceived avant-garde art would later surface and accumulate attention. (Rosenfield, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)
One of the most notable Realist artists was Gustave Courbet, who was considered the leader of the rising avant-garde art movement. Courbet was known to be prideful of his compositions and strong-willed when it came to questioning his politics and philosophy. Burial at Ornans (c. 1849-1850) was the first of the notable Realist works he produced, which portrayed the funeral of his great uncle in the quaint town of Ornans. Courbet uses the overexertion of ostentatious narratives and large canvas from most historical or biblical paintings to his advantage in Burial at Ornans. When displaying the work (and The Stonebreakers, c. 1849) at the Paris Salon, the public garnered mixed appraisals, both positive and negative reactions. Courbet is highly concerned with presenting the realistic and somber subject matter on a grandiose scale. In an article for the Art Journal by James C. McCarthy, the overt discussion of the painting explains the ideological contradictions Courbet brings to the picture plane and how the alignment of the figures are each assiduously significant. McCarthy discusses how the priest, the choir boys, and “the two old veterans of the Revolution of ’93” are intensely compelling as it is drawing onto what is preconceived of credible and familiar context. In “Courbet’s Ideological Contradictions and the Burial of Ornans,” the McCarthy states “There is clearly an intentional conflict between the suggestion of the weight of social tradition and Christian ideals on the one hand, and the grotesque aspects of those who are made to stand for them, on the other.” (McCarthy 14)
Courbet’s demonstration of displaying plague and death can be conceived as both traditional and revolutionary. The painting can be conceived as both traditional and revolutionary through the juxtaposition of the usually accustomed facets of composition and the nuance of reality through the eyes of common people. Burial at Ornans is using traditional technique, but is not glorifying grief or death on the high scale that classical paintings do. The event in and of itself is the focus of attention, and this can support the certainty of why Burial at Ornans caused such a controversy within the public when this particular painting was showcased at the Paris salons. Nonetheless, Courbet’s personal artistic approach and political viewpoints did not change and he still persevered in the direction of liberating truth and reality.
In 1855, Courbet had finished creating The Painter’s Studio, which was an autobiographical painting. The Painter’s Studio depicts Courbet painting a landscape, along with portraying his recognition of the working class towards the left of the picture plane. He reverses the role of the nude model as the muse, as she is standing right beside him in astonishment of his eminence. Napoleon III is also portrayed in this allegory as possibly a hunter, holding a firearm. (Musee d’Orsay, 2006.) When Courbet submitted The Painter’s Studio, (along with Burial at Ornans and eleven other works) to the Exposition Universelle, they were both rejected by the jury. This infuriated Courbet, and he pulled out his accepted works to showcase his own exhibit, which was titled “Pavilion of Realism.”(Morton.) The Pavilion of Realism was a self-promotion of his collective works and was situated across the street where the Exposition Universelle of 1855 was taking place. For artistic communication in the introduction of The Pavilion of Realism, the Realist Manifesto was written.
The Realist Manifesto details the personal thoughts of Courbet and his creative process in regards to his overall compositions. The Realist Manifesto is also in obeisance into political manifestos that also have the same indignant and definitive energy as Courbet’s. In the beginning of the manifesto, Courbet explains the rather assigned, uncommunicative title of being called a Realist artist, and states “Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.”(Courbet.) In supporting this, Courbet denies the act of constructing the slogan “art for art’s sake” and rather, that he wanted to create art without any apogee or accomplished objective. In 1861, Courbet received a petition in which art students from École des Beaux-Arts wanted him to open up his own facility where students could learn the ways of Realism art. In response, Courbet pronounced in his manifesto that he was against the concept of formal teaching, and that one who is an artist must be their own mentor first and learn from observation and inspiration. Further, he states that “It is in this sense that I deny the possibility of historical art applied to the past. Historical art is by nature contemporary. Each epoch must have its artists who express it and reproduce it for the future. An age which has not been capable of expressing itself through its own artists has no right to be represented by subsequent artists. This would be a falsification of history.” (Courbet.) This is one of the main philosophies of Realism that the founders of modern art propose and demonstrate. To redefine the purpose of creating art, and to inject a new way of seeing reality and translating it onto a canvas not only for their own gratification, but so audiences can see how far fine arts can push boundaries within truth and principle. For artists like Courbet and Daumier, this is fundamental backdrop of creating and constructing art within the mid 19th century. Art was not just for “art’s sake,” but to be able to reach to a working-class audience and to be able to impact to all inclusive audiences.
In further discussion to The Painter’s Studio, Courbet also writes a letter to a close friend of his, Champfleury. Champfleury was an art critic and writer that was a distinguished devotee to Realism. In Courbet’s letter to Champfleury, he articulates the thought process behind creating The Painter’s Studio and states:
” The Studio will show that I am not dead yet, and nor is Realism, since Realism is a fact. It is the moral and physical history of my workshop, first stage; there are those who serve me, who support me in my idea, who participate in my action. There are those who live on life and who live on death. It is society at its top, bottom and middle.”(Courbet)
The overall objective of The Painter’s Studio is to recognize those that are an average worker, and those that have lived in poverty and misery by trying to make ends meet. This is a commonality and recurring theme within the inspiration of Courbet. Courbet is using his inspiration to move and influence those that deserve the recognition most.
Édouard Manet, a younger artist living in Paris, is another recognizable Realist artist within the epoch of Courbet and Daumier. Manet was in the beginning stages of establishing his name from the Salon in 1861, in which he was awarded with an honorable mention for one of his works, titled The Spanish Singer. The process of establishment within Manet becoming a well-recognized artist would further push the envelope with the submission of Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe to the 1863 Salon (in which it was rejected, thus being placed into the Salon de Refuses.) Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe is a large canvas, standing at 82 inches long and 104 inches wide. The notorious painting depicts two higher-class men enjoying a picnic with a nude woman, along with another woman, position asymmetrically in the background of the scenery. Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe caused a cataclysm in the bourgeois art universe in Paris. Several of those that were outraged by Manet’s painting were primarily men, in the event that the exposing of middle-class men’s verifiable secretive experiences was horrendous to them. There were also those that were offended by the craftsmanship of this composition, in which Manet is defining the staunch texture of oil paints and the canvas itself. (Læssøe.) Along with that, many believed that Manet simply did not know how to paint in ode to the odd and unbalanced perspective and figures from the picture plane.
Manet is toying with the preconceived notions and the definition of art for the viewers to interpellate and think for themselves, rather than what the art culture surrounding them has told them. What has been told to audiences on how to perceive art is dependent on the history around the subject. History paintings is the be-all and end-all of receiving acclaim and success, and that art must be learned from higher institutions. What Manet is stating throughout his chronological body of work is for audiences to understand and think critically about art, and how it does not have to conform to the standard norm within the time period or era. Manet is also impassioned by the idea of integrating new modern context within the same expressive techniques that historical painters adapted to alter the combination as a mirror of reality. (Remer, The Art Story.)
As the Industrial Revolution was growing more progressively in Britain in the early 19th century, France was slowly gaining the same modern aspects in the country. Paris was the most evident modern city in Europe at the time, especially after the 1848 Revolution. During the Industrial Revolution in France in the mid 19th century, many of the French citizens were moving to Paris resulting in widespread urbanization. While machinery created new jobs for citizens, it also began to take away opportunities to the common people. Those who were working in agriculture experienced a considerable shift. As the creation for new possibilities for those of upper class increased, those that were apart of the industrial working class were struggling. This transfigured the context in which Realists wanted to produce art for those in heavy exertion.
Taking a look back into the art of Honoré Daumier, who (alongside Courbet) was one of the most politically motivated within the Realists, did not shy away from explicit content in regards to depicting actuality within social and class inequality. Daumier’s most successful works that illustrates this in Third Class Carriage, created in 1864. In Third Class Carriage, Daumier’s personal perception on the universal observation of working class people is on an emotional level. Third Class Carriage represents a somber family under a subdued palette to comprehend the social inequality under the influence of urbanization in Paris. The family’s expressions constitute the incessant struggle that is unceasing to their affect of living in amity. Daumier is not focused on the factual event that is occuring (which is in the event of the main subject and also many French passengers in the background taking a train ride), but on the repressed sentiment of what is emotionally portrayed here. He is also taking into account that this is an ideological representation of history, that while Daumier may not have factual evidence of this specific incident occurring, that instead it is what a common person may go through in everyday living.
In a scholarly article by Michel Melot for Oxford Art Journal, the discussion of Daumier’s political presence within his multiple lithographs and fine art paintings alongside the aesthetic judgement is an immoderate topic that is influential to the French public at that time. Melot discusses that the assigned independence for both aesthetic and political debate was “an ideological phenomenon which simply conceals an immanent political discourse still effective in the present day” (Melot). In comparison to most Realists, Daumier’s artistic form was found to be highly exceptional, but still were found to be exceedingly controversial by the general public. Daumier and other Realists were consistently in the pandemonium of the mid 19th century, considering the political, social, and economical alterations generating in France. The constant depiction of real life scenarios along with successfully emoting the tone of precarious years in a search for social equality ordains Daumier as a prominent leader in the Realism art movement.
In mostly every art movement, there has been a monumental step into the inclusivity of variant subject matters as the target foreground. The heavy weight of privilege through artistic representation provides a platform for artists to educate the onlookers of what underlies reality and truth. Realism exceeds those standards through their unconcealed intentions. Courbet, Manet, and Daumier were the leaders in changing the formula in which the purpose of creating art is configured. The underlying inconsistencies of purporting the artistic distinction that patronage of the arts held was found to be plausible by a multitude of individuals until Realism altered the way of seeing. But the impact of Realism proposed the idea of composing art for both a experiential and personal purpose, along with paving the way for generations of modern art to come.
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