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Art Periods: REALISM

In relation to the fine arts the term realism has conveyed a number of different meanings. Until the end of the 19th century it most often connoted naturalism, or the representation of the external world as it is actually seen. Such an approach stresses perceptual experience as opposed to suggestive expression through metaphor or abstraction. In this sense, the term may be used to describe the naturalism of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and his followers, which appeared at the end of the 16th century.

During recent decades of the 20th century the term realism has been used to describe the movement away from abstraction and toward representational art. The same word, however, is also used to describe abstract art that sees reality as inner truth and opposes "mere appearances." The art-historical definition of realism originated in the movement that was dominant primarily in France from about 1840 to 1870-80 and that is identified particularly with the work of Gustave Courbet. The main precedents for 19th-century French realism are found in the work of artists painting in the tradition of Caravaggio. Realism, however, was decidedly an outgrowth of its particular time -- one of great political and social upheaval. This unrest stirred the realists to reject prevailing canons of academic and romantic art and to undertake instead a nonescapist, democratic, empirical investigation of life as it existed around them. They painted ordinary people leading their everyday lives. Although other artists had depicted similar subjects in earlier times, the realists took a fresh and unemotional view.

Realism was most emphatically proclaimed in 1855, when Courbet, having been rejected for the Paris Exposition, arranged a private showing of his paintings that centered on his huge The Artist's Studio (1855; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). He also distributed a manifesto of realism outlining his program. Among the other realists were Honoré Daumier, most noted for his incisive mockery of the petty bourgeoisie, and Jean François Millet, whose peasant scenes are more reflective in tone than those of Courbet. The early works of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas (1860s and '70s) are realist, and, like Courbet's, contain elements that prefigure impressionism. The art of the Pre-Raphaelites in England and of Adolf von Menzel in Germany is also related to the realist movement.

Barbara Cavaliere
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Linda Nochlin, Realism (1971) and Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900 (1966); Theodore Reff, ed., Exhibitions of Later Realist Art (1981); James H. Rubin, Realism and Social Vision in Courbet and Proudhon (1981).
Images: "xxx"
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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