A Discussion on Realism and Impressionism

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A Discussion on Realism and Impressionism
Kendall Brast

A Discussion on Realism and Impressionism
The world was changing dramatically in the late 18th century. In North America, the British colonies had successfully revolted against the English empire and formed the United States of America. Fueled by this success, Europeans began to feel a strong desire for change, most notably in France, where the search for liberty led to the bloody French Revolution, which lasted from 1788 until 1799. At the same time, populations were starting to rapidly expand, and science and technology were producing the engines and tools to make the Industrial Revolution possible. It was in this atmosphere of change that a new artistic movement was born; a movement that wanted to view the world around it in a different way. Prior to this era, works of art commonly exemplified idealized scenes from historic events, or placed the subject in larger-than-life, heroic circumstances. Artists of the new movement wanted to show life as it really existed; its triumphs as well as failures; its beauty as well as its baser attributes. These artists were a part of the new movement: Realism. As the name of the movement implies, Realism was an artistic movement toward attempting to capture the subject of the artwork in a true-to-life manner. Stated simply, realist artists sought to produce accurate and objective portrayals of the ordinary, observable world, with a focus on the lower classes and with a critique of the established social and political order (MindEdge, 2012). Considered by many to be the father of Realism is the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877). In his life-sized depiction of two workmen he met along the roadside called The Stonebreakers (1849-50), we see the hallmarks of the Realist movement.

(Courbet, 1850)

Not only does Courbet pay careful attention to the detail in order to “paint as he sees it”, but he treats the subject matter with almost reverent respect. The laborers are not being extolled as heroic figures in an epic struggle, as would be expected in a more Romantic-style work of art. Instead, the two workmen are seen busy at a most ordinary task, that of breaking and moving heavy stones by the roadside. The simple act of everyday, hard labor is glorified and given a dignity that transcends heroism. This new-found, at least for the time period, respect for the common person and his or her struggles and successes in everyday life, as well as the desire to depict those struggles and successes with accuracy, are the true hallmarks of Realism. The paint had hardly dried on the early works of the Realist movement when another group of artists began to focus on a different aspect of artistic expression. This new technique was begun by the French artist Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883). Manet was a Realist painter who also wanted to bring truth to the color and light involved in his paintings. Manet and others of this new style had found that, rather than mixing colors on the palette and applying this mixture to the canvas, by juxtaposing different colors close together on the canvas, a more intense hue could be produced. This caused the painting have an almost unfinished look to them, especially when viewed from close range. This effect, along with the treatment of light on the subjects to capture time, motion and emotion in daily life and nature, is a key element of Impressionism. One of the most well-known of the Impressionist painters was Claude Monet (1840 – 1926). His work, Impression, Sunrise (1872), is quite characteristic of the Impressionist movement.

(Monet, 1872)

This depiction of a harbor scene in France is done in very loose brushstrokes, suggesting the subject matter rather than clearly defining it. The painting creates a “feeling” of water and boats in the early morning. This treatment of the subject and the light illuminating it gave art critic Louis Leroy the idea, in...
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