Dates: 1840-1920

Origin: France

Key Artists: Gustav Courbet, Edgar Degas

A term used generally to refer to art in which subjects from real life are depicted. More specifically, it has been associated with a movement in French painting which lasted from c.1830 to the 1860s and deliberately eschewed the obscure subjects normally found in academic art in order to concentrate on portraying contemporary themes, including urban or rural life, landscapes of the various regions of France, still lifes, and portraits of the artists’ families and friends. This democratization of art received considerable impetus from the 1830 Revolution and ensuing July Monarchy, the supporters of which were of a liberal political persuasion. By the 1850s the painter Gustave Courbet was generally perceived as the leader of the movement and his circle of artist and writer friends met at the Brasserie Andler in Paris where Courbet put forward his theories of Realism, which he published in a manifesto entitled Réalisme to accompany his purpose-built Pavillon du Réalisme in 1855. A number of influential critics also played important roles, including Courbet’s major supporter Champfleury, and also Théophile Thoré and Jules Antoine Castagnary. In their writings they stressed that art should be made available to all the people and should record the visible world rather than obscure allegories and histories. Certain artists of the past were greatly admired and cited as worthy of study, including Caravaggio, Velázquez, the Le Nain brothers, Chardin, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Contemporary genre painting was also promoted because it could emphasize the factual and at the same time include common customs and traditions. In the mid-1860s the novelist and critic Emile Zola proclaimed Realism and its practitioners such as François Bonvin to be outdated and too reliant on tradition. This was partly a ploy to promote the paintings of his friend Edouard Manet, but it was also symptomatic of aspects of avant-garde opinion which welcomed the technical advances and more brilliant colouring of the young Impressionists.

“Realism.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford Art Online. 11 Mar. 2010 <;

Gustav Courbet

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