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During the XIX century, many significant changes happened all around Europe and, eventually, the world. Along with the French Revolution of 1848, comes an overall conscious of the people of what democracy is and of the newly earned rights of the people. The temporary government of the revolution fought for the right for men to vote and work. Also, the industrialization was quickly growing, and the population was multiplying, meaning distress and poverty to people living in urban and rural areas.
As a repercussion to all of the social and political changes happening in France, artists start questioning the authority of the Academy, and there is a stylistic and formal separation from the traditional way of making art. The Realist painters looked down on Romanticism and its ideals, preferring to portray ordinary people and everyday events. With a naturalistic feel, these artists were able to give a photographic sensation to the paintings, as well as using large canvases to impose its importance, as it would be with a historical painting.
Gustave Courbet considered the leader of the Realism movement, ridicules the Academy's way of idealizing historic images by painting The Artist’s Studio. This large-scale canvas declared Courbet's artistic and political views as he mixes rich and poor people on the left side of the painting – like a priest and a beggar. On the right side, he portrayed his friends and colleges, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (philosopher and anarchist), Champfleury (novelist and critic), Alfred Bruyas (his patron), and none other than Charles Baudelaire (poet). Courbet had a realistic approach to his studio and put himself painting in the middle, along with a child, a cat and nude woman watching him work. This work was not well received by the jury of the Paris Salon of 1855, which accepted more than ten other of his paintings.
Because of the rejection of his work, Courbet decides to organize an individual exposition in the Paris Exposition Universelle of Paris, in which he made his pavilion and named it “Le Réalisme.” Even though he did not sell much, this exhibition was a significant influence on the new generation of artists.
In the outskirts of Paris, in a small village in a rural area, the Barbizon School focuses on painting rural landscapes without it being just a mere background for another topic, like mythology stories. These landscapes usually have a melancholic vibe and were inspired by the British painter John Constable. The group was initially formed by four artists, starting with the leader Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, and Charles-Francois Daubigny.
As a founder of the Barbizon School, Millet captures a more naturalistic way of representing landscape and joins human figures, like in The Gleaners. In this piece, he depicts three peasants with much dignity and uses strong, hard brush strokes, as well as a fixed expression on the workers. This painting shows the relation between the rural working class and the land and, in the future, inspires Vincent van Gogh for the same reasons.
Corot’s work was inspired, but still different, by the Barbizon because of his interest in light and use of pearly color pallets, this is especially seen in Mantes, View of the Cathedral and Town through the Trees. The artist is considered one of the pioneers of the Impressionism, along with Edouard Manet, whose work somehow fits in a gap between Realism and Impressionism. Manet showed Olympia and caused a scandal in the Paris Salon of 1865. In a contemporary surrounding, a nude prostitute stares into the viewer's eyes. She is an everyday woman, not a nymph, not sacred, and not idealized. Until this day there is a debate if she is the leading figure of the painting, or the fully clothed servant bringing flowers.
Realism expanded to other countries other than France in the mid-XIX century, like in Australia, Germany, and Italy, as political revolutions were happening all over the world. There was an overall growth in social consciousness and faith in democracy. Adolph von Menzel is considered the most important artists of the German Realism, working with large-scale paintings. An idealization of an equal society and just distribution of wealth made many Realists turn to Socialism, ideology discussed by Marx and Engels. Nikolaj Kasatkin paints Poor People Gathering Coal at an Exhausted Mine, showing the cruel working conditions of the Russian people.
This was a period where things were quickly changing, especially in art. Realism was one of the greatest ruptures of the Classical authority, giving artists a chance to be authentic, as well as politically and socially involved thru their art. This period is just a preview of what the modern times have in store for humanity and society itself.