Realism With a Capital RToday the term is next to meaningless in that it is used as a shorthand expression for everything from photo-realism to the work of Kinkaid and Bob Ross. And while they all owe some degree of descendency from Realism, they are pretty far removed from what the original movement was and what it meant.
Originally Realism was a reactionary movement to counter rampant Rococo-ism and, Romanticism, Classicism, Academicism, and any other "ism" that dealt with anything other than the plight of the everyday man in his colourless everyday life. Today, all of these would probably be called realism (with a small "r"). But to the founders of this movement, Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier, Realism was not so much a style of painting as a philosophy. Their battle with the French art establishment was over subject matter rather than painting technique. As was the case with most artists who broke with the official Academic art, juries and the public shunned their work. Courbet's paintings, such as the Stone-Breakers of 1849, which featured the labouring, faceless figures of an old man and adolescent boy, was criticised severely by critics who preferred mythological or idealistic subjects.
Strangely, Courbet considered his work more "realistic" than the academic style because it dealt with "real" life. In fact, stylistically, just the opposite was true. The Academic style was very near to what we would call photo-realism today, denying any surface texture, and concerned only with natural, illusionistic space, light, and appearances. Courbet's painting technique involved rich, creamy applications of thick paint, often with a palette knife, in what was to foreshadow stylistically the work of the Impressionists, even though his colour choices were quite traditional, utilising muted browns, greens, and blues. Yet ironically, perhaps because of his advanced age, Courbet was to have nothing to do with the young, upstart Impressionists, and in fact, hated the work of the real precursor of Impressionism, Edouard Manet.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 February 1998