The Realist style owes its existence to the Realist concept. "Realism is democracy in art," Courbet believed. (Nochlin, xiii) Taking that as the credo upon which the works of the artists were constructed, the style itself can be nothing if not anti-academic, anti-historical, anti-conservative. Indeed, whether brushstrokes or pen markings or etching into stone or metal form the image, the underlying attitude is one of freedom, attention to the gross characteristics of form, dismissal of mere decoration for its own sake, and obvious celebration of anything. The self-consciousness of the finely chosen brushstroke or marking is gone, in favor of a brushstroke or marking that favors expression of the interplay between what is seen and the seer. Gone is any demand from outside the artist to make things appear lovelier, grander, more stately than they perhaps really are. It is, in short, art with the warts painted in. It is the "attempt to render in paint that exists in three dimensions." (Parlez-vous Web site) It is, moreover, a less light-filled art than what had gone before, the Romantic style, and what would come after, Impressionism. It used the colors of the palette that corresponded to the nature of the subject matter, and the subject matter had changed from nobility in shining satins to the peasantry in rough and dirty woolens and linens. It might be fair to say that Realism was a portrait of reality gone down market one full step, for the painters themselves were, by and large, firmly bourgeoisie. So it might also be reasonably concluded that Realism is a style depicting 'what is' from a viewpoint that could easily look down were it not rooted in an egalitarian philosophy and a compassionate attitude.
Because the peasantry has no history, and the bourgeoisie has little -- certainly not the illustrious genetic trees of the nobility nominally deposed in the events, all across Europe, of 1848 -- the concept of time as a locus for Realist paintings was far different from the concept of time as it had been used in all the 'isms' that had gone before. Classicism was timeless in that it was a self-involved ethos that imagined that events that had happened 2000 years earlier, or even longer, had lasting value for the viewer and were fit subjects for art. Romanticism was timeless in that it celebrated the enduring noble qualities of mankind in an imaginary, color-washed palette that could, to a Realist, only be the things of dreams. But Realism took on the nature of the eternal Now, although certainly the meat-and-potatoes Courbet, who originated the concept in great part, would not have expressed it that way. How he did express it is this way: "Il faut tre de son temps." (Nochlin, 19) Translated, the slogan, "It is necessary to be of your own time," was the rallying cry of all Realists.
But exactly what did it mean? It was a simplistic call to what the artists saw as authenticity, to express and inform regarding the actual events and people of the day, month, year, decade, always changing and never being stuck in a particularly admired era, as they would say the classical academicians had done. It is entirely possible, of course, that the introduction of photography -- an 'instant painting' -- may have informed this viewpoint as much as did the 1848 Revolution and its destruction of great part of remaining Bonapartist elitism, previous noble stratification of French society. By anchoring the subject matter of art in its own time, the eternal present, the way was opened for the invention of the avant-garde, meaning that something is in advance of one's own time. (Nochlin, 7) In attempting to bring about social change -- which would happen sometime in the future -- art was necessarily perennially in advance of its own time, although it often lagged behind technically.
Charles Baudelaire, author and eloquent spokesman of Realism, had fought on the barricades in the 1848 Revolution, and later wrote on art. In one work he condemned the "puerile utopia of the art-for-art's sake school." (Nochlin, 3) As an egalitarian, Baudelaire wanted art, as much as anything else in life, to both reflect and be of interest to the greatest number of people, the working class. He decried that even when they did walk through a great treasure house of art, such as the Louvre, they would come away having seen objects, but not having been involved or moved at any elemental level. (It is distressing to say this, but together, Courbet and Baudelaire might well have been the thinkers who, a century and a half later, engendered the completely mass population-oriented 'reality show.') His call for "painters of modern life" was, looking at it through 21st century glasses, as self-involved and limiting as any other demand for a particular attitude in art had ever been. It was simply different because it celebrated not the nobility, but the serf.
Realism did focus on the serf. Naturally, by that time, they were called 'workers.' But even a brief look at the depictions of the workers in Courbet's work makes it clear that these people have nothing; their clothes are minimal, untidy. Their surroundings are unlovely. Their expressions are unhappy. Celebrating the worker, then, becomes literally a paean to the heroism of the millions who toil, granted a refreshing change from celebrating the solipsism of the classes who had always caused them to toil. It is well to remember, here, that the concept of time had changed, no longer mired in the past, but rather avant-garde, looking toward the future if anything. It would have to be that; the 'now' Courbet et al. painted was certainly nothing to aspire to. It was, however, a reflection of a certain segment of what actually was.
A discussion of three paintings, one each by Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet and Honore Daumier will illuminate how these three important Realists combined the political with the painterly, the ethos with the aesthetics.
Courbet, for all his derision of classicism, is perhaps the most classical among the three, at least in terms of his technique. He chooses a single female subject, not an unusual choice. He shows her in her familiar surroundings; again, quite ordinary for centuries of figure painting. He picks out the shape of her face and her hands -- those things which make a human being an individual from a pictorial standpoint -- with intense light. He fades into the background the everyday objects she would have had. And that is the source of the difference: the portraits of nobles from times past would have included objects displaying the station of the individual. In this case, the only objects displayed clearly are the spinning wheel and the spool. As in classical portraits, these objects indeed give information about the subject. And that is a radical departure; the subject is not only a worker, but also a female worker. And not only a female worker, but also one who is exhausted, fallen asleep on the job. That was 'painting for modern times,' as Baudelaire would have it. But Courbet's technique, from the ordering of his composition to the fine brushstrokes, is not nearly as avant-garde as that of some of his contemporaries. In this, he might have been perfectly suited to bridge the gap between classicism and the future, bringing at least an acknowledgement of skill to attempts to be shown at reputable venues.
Millet has chosen an even more radical approach than Courbet. His composition of two figures walking across the fields to work is much more peasant-oriented: Courbet's approaches a bourgeoisie feeling and subject. His figures are not well dressed, whereas Courbet's sleeper is quite adequately robed for her place and time. Their clothing is tattered, dirty and of poor quality. Their relative positions, however, make it quite clear that this is art of a far different sort than had come before. The man is not standing behind, presenting the lady. He is walking in front, and his face is in shadow. The woman, although on a plane behind the man, faces front, confronting the viewer, almost expressionless and with a posture neither hopeless nor grand. She just is. In its simple activity, composition and studiously emotionless rendering, this painting is more avant-garde by far than Courbet's. Its rougher brush strokes seem perfectly suited to the subject matter. This painting would be harder to hang in the well-heeled households of the day, more demanding that salon judges be open to new ideas than is Courbet's. Because of this, the painting is a more forceful -- or at least more aggressive -- statement of the changes…