Musée d'Orsay: Realism


"Mister Courbet is a realist, I am a realist; since the critics are saying it, I let them say it. But, to my great shame, I confess that I have never studied the code containing the rules by which the newcomer is permitted to produce realist works."
Champfleury, On Realism, Letter to Madame Sand, September 1855.

Gustave CourbetThe Peasants of Flagey© Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Realism appeared first in France and Great Britain in the second half of the 19th century before becoming popular in the United States. At first, this movement was seen as much in literature with Balzac, Champfleury (Jules François Félix Husson) and Louis Edmond Duranty, as in painting with several artists, including Gustave Courbet. Realism reacted to the confrontation between Romanticism and Classicism at the time, by depicting reality without idealising it, and by tackling social and political themes.

Realism is not mimicry

Gustave CourbetThe Artist's Studio (detail)© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
"Realism" should not be understood as an attempt at a slavish imitation of the real. For Courbet, it was about taking the reality of the world around him as his subject. The painter wished to "interpret the manners, ideas and aspect of his own time", but highlighting "his own individuality".

As a contemporary of early photography, Courbet used this medium in his work, notably to paint the nude woman behind him in The Studio, and again in Chillon Castle. Yet the painter's intentions were a long way from photographic mimicry. He wished to put forward a personal vision of the real, a desire which at times his contemporaries found difficult to understand.
Several scandals marked Courbet's career, but these episodes also enabled him to maintain his reputation, and did not prevent either his recognition or his commercial success. Thus, while proving that success in no way curbed his creative freedom, Courbet maintained his position at the forefront of the artistic stage.

An art opposed to idealisation

Gustave Courbet 
 Un enterrement à Ornans, also called Tableau de figures humaines, historique d'un enterrement à Ornans [A Burial at Ornans, also called A Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans]
 Between 1849 and 1850
 Oil on canvas
 H. 315; W. 668 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Miss Juliette Courbet, 1877
Gustave CourbetA Burial at Ornans© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In the preface to the 1855 exhibition catalogue, Gustave Courbet stated that "it is necessary to know in order to do", before adding that his aim was to produce "living art".
This profession of faith was clear: he had followed the teaching of the old masters, and assiduously visited the Louvre, but he did not intend to perpetuate a rigid tradition.

Fundamentally, Courbet was opposed to the academic teaching of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, whose rules he refused to accept. He moved away from mythological or historical subjects, and rooted his work in his own era, painting what he saw around him.

The realists

Honoré Daumier 
 La République [The Republic]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 73; W. 60 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation by Etienne Moreau-Nélaton, 1906
Honoré DaumierThe Republic© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Without totally rejecting the term Realism (he himself named the building he had built for his 1855 exhibition "the Pavilion of Realism") Courbet wanted to keep his distance from this circle "which no one is really expected to understand". Indeed, there were many other contemporary painters who were more or less connected to the ill-defined Realist group. Realism at that time appeared to be a heterogeneous and unstructured movement.

In 1878, Champfleury, who championed the cause of Realism, spoke very highly of Daumier, an all round artist better known for his caricatures than for his painting and sculpture. Like Courbet, Daumier was "a painter of his time". But he liked to portray specific social or political events, as in La Rue Transnonain (1834), or produce allegorical works like La République (1848).
Courbet, on the other hand, did not express his firm Republican convictions directly in his paintings. Even if he portrayed the working classes, he did not feel that his art had to be didactic or a vehicle for propaganda. Nevertheless, Courbet did produce a drawing of the 1848 barricades for the magazine Le salut public, produced by his friends Baudelaire and Champfleury, taking much of his inspiration from Delacroix.

Jules Breton Calling in the Gleaners© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
When they started to paint, Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton represented the world of work without idealising it, but they became successful by presenting an almost nostalgic image of rural life.
In the famous Angélus (between 1857 and 1859), Millet even goes as far as to give his peasant couple an iconic appearance. Jules Breton's peasant girls (Calling in the Gleaners, 1859) are a long way from Courbet's rough Stone Breakers (1850). Millet, in The Gleaners (1857), confers a certain nobility onto the poorest of the peasants. Courbet, in After Dinner at Ornans and in Burial in Ornans, simply shows them as they are.

As sons of prosperous farmers, and painters of rural life, the careers of Millet and Courbet at first followed a similar path – Millet's A Winnower (1866-1868) and Courbet's The Wheat Sifters (1854) – but they moved apart over time.

Isidore PilsDeath of a Sister of Charity© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans
Courbet's paintings were not theatrical, which differentiated him from other Realists who used working class subjects but with a tendency towards dramatisation or Post-Romantic Miserablism, particularly visible in the works of Isidore Pils, Octave Tassaert and Alexandre Antigna.
Courbet, when depicting death, does it crudely, with dead animals (game or fish) or with his almost ethnological observation of funeral customs in the France-Comté regione (Toilet of a dead woman). The poignancy of the religious ceremony in Burial at Ornans is defined in the group of weeping women.

Nicknamed "The Correggio of Sorrow", Octave Tassaert, painter of An Unhappy Family (1849) was admired by the Romantic writer Théophile Gautier, who draws a contrast between this Realist and Courbet. According to the poet and critic, Tassaert "paints unhappiness not abjection, banality not ugliness, the people not the rabble".
As a Catholic and a fatalist, Tassaert did not call the social order into question. With The Stone Breakers, Courbet on the other hand denounced the condition of these men, who were forced to do a job as difficult as it is absurd. For the painter, they represented "the complete expression of human misery".

Alexandre AntignaThe Fire© Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Fire (1850) by Alexandre Antigna, is a large painting of a family in distress. This domestic drama without historical context can be interpreted as a metaphor for the wretched condition of the working class. This type of scenario is not seen in Firemen running to a Fire painted by Courbet in 1850-1851.

Rosa Bonheur's animal paintings, as with her paintings of peasants Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) , might place her nearer to Courbet. But Rosa Bonheur, who enjoyed both critical and commercial success, ignored the social and political reality of the time.

Rosa Bonheur
 Labourage nivernais, also called Le sombrage [Ploughing in Nevers also called The First Dressing]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 1.34; W. 2.6 m
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Rosa Bonheur Ploughing in Nevers© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
Her cause, if she had one, was of a woman searching to be recognised as an artist, not that of a painter struggling against tradition. Others, like her, only offered a nostalgic, rosy vision of work in the fields. This applies particularly to Constant Troyon's work where the bucolic atmosphere of Oxen going to the plough (1855) is far removed from the coarseness of Courbet's paintings. In Courbet's work, animals are often represented with great dramatic force. Possibly because over and above a simple, naturalist representation, Courbet found an opportunity here for self-portraits in the form of animal parables.

In a painting entitled What is called vagrancy, Alfred Stevens showed soldiers taking a mother and her children to prison for the crime of vagrancy. Emperor Napoleon III was so moved by this painting exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition that he decided that henceforth vagrants should be taken to the Conciergerie Prison in a closed carriage.

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