Realism and Naturalism

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Realism was a mid-nineteenth-century, primarily French, movement in literature and art. To realists, the arts did not exist for their own sake (l'art pour l'art), as they had for the Romantics, but served the cause of mankind (l'art pour l'homme) by exposing political and social evils. Realism as a broad movement in art and literature survived until the end of the nineteenth century, but it changed in the 1870s, when the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884) introduced a form of painting that today is generally referred to as naturalism, though in the nineteenth century that term was often used interchangeably with realism.


Realism was based on the idea that writers and artists must focus on the here and now. Il faut être de son temps—"one must be of one's own time," was the current phrase that summed up this central idea of the movement succinctly. Realism was both an outgrowth of and a form of rebellion against Romanticism. While it rejected much of late Romantic art for its historic, exotic, or imaginary subject matter, it embraced one of the main tenets of early Romanticism, which held that art should be involved with the present. Or, as the Romantic critic and theorist Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783–1842) had written in 1824, "the 'romantic' in all the arts is that which shows the men of today." But while to Stendhal showing the "men of today" meant to represent important men engaged in consequential acts, the realists focused on the trivial doings of ordinary people. In a now famous section of his review of the 1846 Paris Salon, the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) called for artists to depict "private subjects" and to open their eyes to the "thousands of floating existences … which drift about in the underworld of a great city."

Realism may also be seen as an artistic response to the social and political climate of the late 1830s and 1840s and its culmination in the explosive revolution of 1848. This new climate was marked by a growing awareness of the enormous gap between rich and poor that the Industrial Revolution had caused. Intellectuals, especially, became concerned with the abominable working and living conditions of factory workers, peasants, and the urban proletariat. Some developed fantastic utopian schemes aimed at bettering the lives of the lower classes and eliminating the excesses of wealth and poverty. Others felt that nothing but a war between rich and poor could bring about the wholesale change or revolution that was needed. In 1847 the German journalist Karl Marx (1818–1883), recently exiled from Paris to Brussels, and his friend Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) wrote a short text entitled The Communist Manifesto, in which they encouraged the "proletarians" to rise up and break the chains that bound them to their miserable fate. Even before the manifesto was published in 1848, Paris had become the scene of a violent revolution, aimed at radical political and social change.

Many young artists who lived through the Revolution of 1848 and the short-lived Second French Republic that followed it responded by redirecting their choice of subject matter to the lives of the lower classes—peasants, manual workers, beggars, and the like. It is not that such subjects had not been painted before but, while the older generation of painters, working during the 1830s and 1840s, had for the most part sentimentalized and trivialized low-class scenes, typically painting them in miniature formats, the young artists who emerged in the 1850s set out to depict them in a monumental, dignified, and honest manner. The Salon of 1850–1851—called by one critic a historic exhibition that marked the victory of "the feeling or at least the search for the truth"—would include several works that defined the realist movement. Among them were The Stonebreakers (1849) and A Burial at Ornans (1849–1850) by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877); The Sower (1850) by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875); Hunger (1848), a painting of a starving family, by Jules Breton (1827–1906); and School for Orphan Girls (1850) by François Bonvin (1817–1887). Common characteristics of these works were their focus on contemporary life and their engagement with the daily labor, ritual activities, and miserable conditions of ordinary people—manual laborers, rural bourgeois, peasants, the urban poor, and their abandoned children. Courbet's Stonebreakers, for example, shows two men, one old, the other young, engaged in the manual breaking up of field stones into gravel used to pave the roads. Both are dressed in patched and torn hand-me-downs, which seem emblematic of the miserable lives that fate has handed them.

In referring to the works of Courbet, Bonvin, Breton, or Millet, both advocates and detractors used words like honesty, truth, naivety, and from life, but while to the former these attributes signaled the beginning of a new, progressive, and democratic art, to the latter they signified the abomination, even the end of art and the specter of a new "socialist" order in which beauty, culture, style, and sophistication no longer had a place. Realism became the signature term to refer to the works of the new artists. Courbet, who more than any of his contemporaries realized the importance of being part, and preferably even the leader, of the new artistic movement that would replace "outmoded" Romanticism, was quick to adopt the term as a banner for his art. In 1855, organizing a private exhibition of his paintings on the grounds of the first International Exposition in Paris, he referred to his exhibition building as the Pavillon du Réalisme. And as a preface to the small printed catalog of the exhibition he wrote a statement titled "Le Réalisme." Admitting that the title of "realist" was thrust upon him just as "the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830," and drawing into doubt the suitability of a term "nobody … can really be expected to understand," Courbet went on to explain what it meant to him:

I have studied outside of any system and without prejudice, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I no more wanted to imitate the former than copy the latter; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of art for art's sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent sense of my own individuality.

Knowing as a means of being able [to create], that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch as I see it, to be not only a painter but also a human being, in a word, to make living art, that is my goal. (Author's translation)

To Courbet, then, Realism entailed the creation of a visual record of his epoch in a style that was his own individual distillation of the lessons he had learned from the art of the past. His art was based on his personal vision and understanding of his time, hence Courbet called it "living," as it was rooted in his own life experience.

Unlike Romanticism or impressionism, realism was not a new term in art criticism. As a term qualifying a mode of representation in paintings and sculptures, it had been used at least since the beginning of art criticism in the eighteenth century. Often used interchangeably with naturalism, it was applied to art works—paintings or sculptures—that closely copied reality rather than "improved on" it. Realism thus was the opposite of idealism: an artistic practice aimed at enhancing the "imperfect" forms found in reality in order to create art forms of absolute beauty. Rooted in classical antiquity, idealism was exemplified in Greek sculpture of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. and their Roman imitations of early Imperial period. The idealist practice was revived in the Renaissance and survived throughout the baroque period to be given its theoretical foundation in the neoclassical period of the eighteenth century.


While naturalism, like realism, aimed at the truthful representation of ordinary life, preferably of the lower classes and especially the peasantry, it differed from realism in three important ways. First, it lacked the political overtones of the works of the realists who, especially early in their careers, were keen to communicate a sense of social concern. Instead, naturalist artists were out to capture the true character of the scenes they chose to paint, rendering them with the scientific accuracy and detachment of the ethnographer. Second, while realist painters drew heavily on past art and often acknowledged this practice (see Courbet's quote above), the naturalists placed a premium on the direct observation of reality. Many of them had received an academic training (unlike the realists, who were mostly self-taught) and had learned to carefully record their visual expressions in detailed preliminary drawings and oil sketches. Some naturalists, such as Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929) and Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863–1942), also used photography as an important intermediary process in the creation of their paintings. Lastly, unlike their academic teachers, the naturalists were drawn to plein-air painting and often posed their models in the open air, like the impressionists. They did not, however, adopt the "broken" brushwork of the impressionists.

While realism had been at first a French movement, naturalism became an important international style with practitioners across Europe and the United States. British painters George Clausen (1852–1944) and Herbert Henry La Thangue (1859–1929), Americans Thomas Alexander Harrison (known as Alexander, 1853–1930) and Birge Harrison (1854–1929) and Gari Melchers 1860–1932), Scandinavians Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905) and Anders Leonard Zorn (1860–1920), Hungarian Károly Ferenczy (1863–1917), and Belgians Léon Frédéric (1856–1940) and Theodoor Verstraete (1850–1907) all practiced naturalism well into the twentieth century, after modernist movements like expressionism, cubism, and futurism had already been introduced.

See alsoBalzac, Honoré de; Baudelaire, Charles; Corot, Jean-Baptiste-Camille; Courbet, Gustave; Flaubert, Gustave; Marx, Karl; Painting; Positivism; Revolutions of 1848; Romanticism; Zola, Émile.


Boas, George. "Il faut être de son temps." Journal of Aesthetics 1 (1941): 52–65.

Clark, T. J. The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

——. Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848–1851. London, 1973.

Galassi, Peter, ed. Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography. New York, 1981. Exhibition catalog.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. New York, 1971. Reprint, New York, 1993.

Weinberg, Bernard. French Realism: The Critical Reaction, 1830–1870. New York, 1937.

Weisberg, Gabriel P. Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse in European Art, 1860–1905. New York, 1992.

Weisberg, Gabriel P., ed. The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 1830–1900. Cleveland, Ohio, 1980. Exhibition catalog.

Petraten-Doesschate Chu