The Reality of Realism

Like most periods of art, the Romantic period ended with a whimper rather than a bang. By the beginning of the 20th century however, the Age of Realism in art had begun in earnest and Romanticism had been soundly rejected for this new and exciting style. While the Greeks had dabbled with realism nearly three-thousand years before, they had worked exclusively with perfecting the human form. Modern Realism on the other hand seeks to bring the observable world into clear and uncluttered focus. The world was in the beginnings of one of the largest and fastest development periods in human history and art became sweep up into the scientific wave as had much of the rest of the Western world.

Realism never tried to idealize. Instead of copying past methods it sought to simply capture the image, render a completely accurate picture of the models, whether human or still. The hard of a Realist thought that both Classicism and Romanticism were far too artificial, too staged to appeal to the essential human spirit and that Baroque and Neoclassicism were obscene.

Realism in art can almost exclusively seen in paintings. Very little sculpting and no architecture came from the period, all the work then being done in older styles of art. The form started just after the French Revolution in mid century but grew in both France and England with equal fervor. The French were experiencing their first years of Democracy and the English had had enough of Victorian Imperialism. In France Realism was led by artists such as John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins and Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas. This group was highly focused on the different aspects of life and regularly threw centuries old rules of artistic design out the window in the search for realistic portrayals of real life. The Barbizon School, which taught French landscape painters from 1840-1850 was based on the art of these masters and was attended by such art luminaries as Jean-Francois Millet and Camille Corot. The School was actually a retreat used by French artists and because of the natural surroundings, quickly became sought after by Realists.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, opened in 1848 and not ended until the 1890´s was the first real “avant-garde” movement in art history. This group wanted to move back in time, instead of forward, and apply modern principles when depicting the natural world. They wanted pureness in representation and contested that post Raphael art allowed to much of the artists own ideals of what the image looked like instead of its reality. The group had two interesting traits. The first is that they required intense accuracy in their art. They used real, instead of remembered or imagined, landscapes for models and concentrated in being very precise in attention to color and every minute detail. At the same time the English movement adhered faithfully to a tradition established by Hogarth years before of taking a high moral approach to their work.