Art History-Baroque 20th Century: REALISM: The first movement in Modern Art

Realism is considered the first major movement in modernism. It’s important to note that the term Realism does not necessarily refer to a realistic style of painting or drawing (though many artists at this time did portray their subject matter realistically), it refers to showing life as it really was. No longer was the only fitting subject matter for artwork royalty, gods, or epic heroes; now artists were focused on showing us the peasants, the farmers, the prostitutes, and all the real working humans that made up most of the population. This movement overlapped both romanticism and impressionism, and many artists are claimed by multiple movements (i.e. Manet, who is categorized under both Realism and Impressionism). The defining feature of Modernism is known as “avant-garde,” meaning artists were really looking to break the mold and continually reinvent themselves. 

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For part one, I’d like you to revert to a more creative writing tone again, as you did for the Grand Tour assignment. Once again you’ll be writing a letter to a friend, this time from the point of view of an aspiring artist in 1863 who has seen the show at the Salon des Refuses (don’t worry, this will make sense after you read and view the material at the links below!). Tell your friend what it’s like to be an artist in Paris at this time, how your own work is coming along, and what it was like to see these brand-new works from these amazing avant-garde artists. How did it feel to see Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe? Were you as scandalized by it as all of the critics, or did you see something new and incredible in it? Remember, you’re a late-19th-century Parisian artist! No one, including you, has ever seen anything like this before!

After describing your life, the Salon des Refuses, and some of the works in general (2 paragraphs, at least 5 sentences for each paragraph), focus on one particular work that really caught your eye. For the purposes of this assignment, it does not matter if it actually appeared in the 1863 exhibition, just choose a work of realism that you’d like to do a detailed visual analysis on, describing it and telling your friend how it made you feel. Does it have the potential to influence your own work? Do you believe this movement will last, perhaps lead to something else, or will those ancient classical values keep their hold on the art world? Conclude your letter by describing your plans for your next painting, and briefly explain why you are either choosing to jump on board with this new trend of realism, or sticking with traditional styles.  Be sure to INCLUDE AN IMAGE of the main work that you choose to focus on. 

Start by reading and viewing the material below, and then get to writing your letters. And have fun! (be sure to click on “Read More” in the blue box titled “Most Important Art” and read about each of the paintings on that page so you get a sense of the visual progression of realism)

For part two, you will choose one of your classmates’ letters and respond as their friend, who lives in a small town in Southern France (you grew up together before your friend moved to Paris to make their way) and has never heard of all this excitement happening in Paris. You are, however, just as talented an artist as your friend, and this idea of Realism has you pretty excited. Describe to your friend something that you’re going to paint, some scene or activity or person, etc., from your everyday life that you think would make a wonderful subject for a painting. Remember, this idea of painting subjects from real, everyday life is very new! Write at least two paragraphs (5 sentences for each paragraph) to your friend…who knows, maybe he or she will help you get to Paris and you can work and hang out in those cafes together? 

classmate’s letter:

Hello Friend,

I had some time between painting so I thought I would write you. I’m sure that you are curious about what my life has been like, particularly my art life, given these new Avant guard artists are making their mark in France.   Before I talk about their work I would like to fill you in on how my piece has been going.  If you remember I was working on a dark romanticist painting meant to create a feeling of power and fear.  I am almost done with my painting of a ship in a storm.  I hope that when people view this, that it will remind them of the power or awesomeness of nature. 

            As I mentioned before, there are an expanding group of Avant guard artists that are breaking away from traditional norms and values in their paintings.  Instead of painting history, landscapes or portraits they are painting things that a peasant sees.  For example, an artist named Manet, painted a scene of two men hanging out in a field with prostitutes.  Can you believe it? Although I feel I should cringe at the sight of such a thing I find myself taking a deep liberating sigh every time I see a realist painting.  The reason for this is because I am tired of the institutionalization of art.  I have been trying to get my paintings seen by many for years but because they do not live up to the salons judges’ standards my work will never be seen or be great. Although my natural reaction to these paintings are shocking, I still see the value in what these artists are doing.  I think that most of the critics are just too uncomfortable with change to see the brilliance of these paintings. 

Most of the paintings that people consider to be brilliant are showed off at the Salon, a place where people go to view the highest esteemed art.  To be considered for a space at the salon for your art you have to meet the Academy’s requirements.  Historical paintings, paintings that represent mythological or heroic events are esteemed the highest and only the best artist are even allowed to paint this subject. However, The Salon des Refuses, where the refused paintings go to be seen, shows people the paintings that would be considered garbage by The Academy.  It is here that I think the future of art lies. 

            While I was at The Salon des Refuses, a painting that I saw stopped me in my tracks.  It was Edouard Manet’s, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.  In this painting Monet depicts two well-dressed men in a park with two prostitutes.  I immediately thought to myself that this was a depiction of the infamous Bois de Boulogne park a block away from my home.  To give you some background on the park, well off men often hire prostitutes and run off with them there.  It is something that is not spoken of but exists.  Unfortunately, the ruling class does not like to admit their less than gentlemanly activities.  This is actually why I’m in favor of the realist paintings.  They paint the realty of life not the extravagant lifestyles of the few.  I found it funny that when viewing this paining, the men loved to walk their wives right past it.  I wonder why?

      I am now pleased to tell you friend, that I am planning to be a realist painter myself.  Painting for some judge who hangs out at Bois de Boulogne park is not my style.  I plan on going to my local construction sight and setting up shop there. Hopefully I will capture some of the raw emotions and feeling of life as most know it.


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