Both of the two cultural movements that are going to be discussed in this paper originated in France and were related to social and political changes that were happening at the time of their appearance. Therefore, changes in art signify changes in the world and vice versa. That is why it is so important to be able to see a connection between the cultural movements that replace each other and understand the reason, lying in the basics of these changes. The movements that will be discussed and compared here are Realism and Impressionism.
Realism originated in France in the second half of the 19th century. One may observe a clear connection between the emergence of this cultural movement and social and political backgrounds of the time period when Realism originated. It was preceded by the French Revolution of 1848 which led to the overthrow of the Orleans monarchy and the creation of the French Second Republic. The representatives of Realism contraposed their works to the works of Romanticists. Realists praised objective reality and aimed to depict true state of things. Strong, exaggerated emotions were rejected as being unrealistic. The strive to escape to Middle Ages or exotic lands which was so characteristic to Romanticism was absolutely unacceptable to Realistic style. The artists belonging to this cultural movement often chose to depict ugliness and sordidness in their paintings in order to show life in its true colors. Works of social realism became extremely popular. All this was directly connected to social changes happening in the world. The French Revolution established a principle of “the right to work”. There was no need to escape into dreams any more, like romantics did. People received an opportunity to take their fortunes in their own hands. Time for hard work and living in the presumably equal society came and people wanted to see life as it is in order to cope with difficulties efficiently. Consequently this desire found a way of expression in the works by Realist artists.
One of the bright examples of the works of art belonging to Realism may be the painting by Gustave Courbet “The Stome Breakers”. As described in the book by Gardner and Kleiner (2010), this work “Captures on a canvass in a straightforward manner two men – one about 70, the other quite young - in the act of breaking stones, traditionally the lot of lowest in French Society”. (p. 630) The artist neither dramatized nor romanticized the theme of his painting. Instead, he depicted the two men most precisely and realistically. The grim pallet of brown and grey colors emphasizes the monotony and dismay of their job. This painting embodies the most distinctive features of Realism, as the artist depicted life as it is and for depiction chose the representatives of society whom no other artist in the previous century would have thought worthy of depiction. Jessica Gunderson mentions in the book “Realism”(2009) how The Revolution of 1848 influenced Couret’s works. “The Revolution had shown a light on the lives of the peasants and working class, and in response Courbet focused on the poor and ordinary in his paintings”(p.19). Therefore cultural and political situation of the midst of the 19th century undoubtedly was the main reason for the appearance of the new cultural movement.
The art movement that followed Realism was Impressionism. It also originated in France and was the art period of the time from the 1860s through the 1880s. This period in art history was an attempt by French artists to move away from the traditional methods and subjects of art as learned through formal training in the French Academy of Fine Arts. Though this move drastically reduced their chances of having their art exhibited at the Salon, rejecting the rigid constraints of the academic painting methods freed the artists to depict the world around them in a manner not previously seen before. One may not say, however, that this artist style was standing in a complete opposition to the Realism. As Cunningham and Reich (2010) state in their book: “Although Impressionism seemed at the time to represent a radical break with the past, it first developed out of yet another attempt to achieve greater realism.” (p. 471) This was manifested in the general strive of all Impressionists to depict a certain moment of time, incorporating all surroundings and conditions into the work of art.
As history tells, the term Impressionist was first used by the French art critic Louis Leroy in 1874, after he had seen Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise”. Lewis and Lewis (2009) describe this picture in their book “The Power of Art” as follows : “Its vivid colors and lack of detail or outline convey an immediate impression of a place and time of day” (p. 371). The critic used the term “Impressionism” to describe the “unfinished” quality Monet’s painting had, which seemed to be a trend among several other artists of the time. Artists, who chose to paint in the same style as Monet were part of the impressionist movement. This “unfinished” quality Leroy describes is what makes the art of the period unique. Instead of following the traditional methods of painting Monet and artists like him opted to depict their subject matter as it appeared in the moment, perhaps at a certain point of the day when the light hit in a certain manner. Since the light would constantly move as time passed the artists would have to move quickly often completing a painting in one sitting to capture that moment before it past. In doing this, the artist naturally would have to change from the traditional painting methods which called for time consuming blending of color and brush strokes.
The style of the period expresses a need to race against time to capture the moment that the artist wants to immortalize on canvas. The brush strokes of these paintings were small but visible. Up close the colors in the paintings seem roughly laid to canvas without any blending but if the viewer steps back from the painting the colors will seem to merge together for a clear picture of what the artist intended to show. The subject matter was often things that were common in daily life during the period and included scenes of nature or people as observed by the artists. Depicting light and movement within the piece was also characteristic to impressionist paintings. Since depicting light accurately within the paintings was important to the style, artists often painted outdoors instead of in studios as was done traditionally.
Impressionism and Realism have one obvious similarity: both artistic movements concentrated on depicting real life. However, while Realists were more concerned with the themes of their paintings, choosing to depict representatives of social classes that no one had wanted to depict before, Impressionists were concerned with capturing a moment. From this difference in aims comes the difference in styles. Characteristic features of Realism are distinct outlines and deep colors, the works by Impressionists are prominent for blurred images and pastel colors. Consequently, some paintings of Impressionists resembled sketches, rather than real artistic works, which made them objects of severe criticism when they first appeared. As time passed however, the works by Impressionists were recognized and praised by the artistic world. New ideas and new ways of expression are very important in art, besides some paintings by Impressionists are extremely beautiful.
Every new cultural movement appears as a reaction to the previous one, either opposing it or becoming a branch of it and opening new boundaries. Realism contraposed Romanticism and Impressionism in certain sense evolved from Realism. Social and political backgrounds always influence artistic movements which the example of the two movements discussed in this paper shows. Realism was a reaction to the Revilution of 1848 and global and groundbreaking social changes that followed. However, as social and political situation stabilized the movement subsided and was replaced by the Impressionism. The representatives of the latter also aimed at depicting reality but were choosing less sharp and provocative themes for depiction. Therefore cultural movements directly mirror changes that are happening in the world that is why they are so important for history and culture. One may tell the past and predict the future if he or she understands the mysterious language of art.
Cunningham, L. S., Reich, J. (2010) Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities. Boston,
Lewis, R., Lewis, S. (2009) The Power of Art. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.
Gardner, H., Kleiner, F. (2010) Gardner's Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective,
Том 2.Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
Gunderson, J.(2009) Realsim. Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education.