14 julio, 2024

Realism painting: characteristics, techniques, authors, works

What is realistic painting?

The realistic painting he replaces the idealistic images of traditional art with real-life events, giving priority to portraying everyday life. This is due to his social and ideological sensitivity towards the lower classes and leftist movements.

It is Gustave Courbet who lays the foundations in 1861, when he says that «painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things».

Realism is an artistic movement that originates in France, around the middle of the 19th century, to also spread to Great Britain and later, the United States. It begins precisely after the revolution that overthrew the monarch Luis Felipe in 1848. It takes place during the Second Empire under Napoleon III and ends towards the end of the 19th century.

In its beginnings this movement takes place in literature with Campfleury (Jules François Félix Husson); Balzac and Luis Edmond Duranty. And also in painting, whose greatest exponent was Gustave Courbet.

Characteristics of realistic painting

represent reality

His main objective is, as Courbet states, to take the reality of the world around him. For this reason, he claims to capture customs, ideas and aspects of the time, highlighting his personal vision of reality.

Even more so in the preamble to the catalog of the 1855 exhibition, he declares that «you have to know to do» and that its purpose is to produce «living art».

heterogeneous movement

It is Gustave Courbet who coined the term realism when giving that name to the building built for the aforementioned exhibition: «Realism Pavilion». However within this movement there is no complete unity. There are many painters considered within it, but it is not a structured or homogeneous movement.

Representation of the lower and middle class

Representation of the daily reality of the lower and middle class population of society. An example of this is «The Gleaners» by Jean-François Millet.


Absence of joy, people look serious and that is why they are represented with dark colors. In this way the paintings become somber as a means of demonstrating the plight of the workers. An oil painting that clearly represents it is «Third Class Carriage» by Honoré Daumier.

hard work

Image of urban, rural and poor workers shown in hunched over postures, struggling to perform hard manual labor. This can be seen in Gustave Courbet’s “The Stone Breakers”.

class distinction

Challenge of social class distinctions present, for example, in «Young Ladies of the Village.» There, the young women representing the emerging rural environment and the poor peasant class who accept their charity are very close.

Techniques used in realistic painting

For the critics of the time, both Courbet’s painting and that of his realist contemporaries did not respect traditional techniques. For them it was a conflictive and disrespectful art of the current practices up to that moment.

Among those techniques that shocked the artistic specialists of the time, are:

Strongly reinforcing the contours of the figures as in Courbet’s first work, “The Stone Breakers”, which gives a “flat” canvas.
Lack of perspective and denial of scale as occurs in another work by Courbet «Young Ladies of the Village» and in «Le déjeuner sur l’herbe» by Édouard Manet.

In the case of Manet’s painting, the critics of the time exploded with indignation when comparing it with the works of Marcantonio Raimondi and Giorgione. So they considered Manet’s treatment unseemly in front of the Old Masters.

The same happened with “Olympia” based on Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, which they considered contoured, flat, raw and coarse.

However, these manipulations both in Manet, who later founded Impressionism, and in Courbet, gave realism painting the possibility of revealing the canvas as a two-dimensional support that is creatively covered with pigment. And this has been the possibility that future artists could move away from naturalism.

Notable authors and works

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Creator of this movement, in addition to his most recognized works «The Stone Breakers» and «Young Ladies of the Village», there is another pioneer called «A Burial at Ornans».

But when said work and «The Painter’s Studio» were rejected by the jury at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855, he withdrew them and founded his Pavilion of Realism.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)

He painted scenes of rural life such as «Sheep Shearing Beneath a Tree». In this way he paid homage to the French population migrating from rural areas to industrialized cities.

Another of his works is «The Gleaners», which shows the rural poverty of that time. And in «Woman with a Raike» he gives his figures a sculptural presence similar to the art of Michelangelo and Nicolas Poussin.

Honore Daumier (1808-1879)

This painter stands out for illustrating the socioeconomic differences in the urban area. This is done through the experience of train travel in first, second and third class compartments.

In «The First-Class Carriage» there is no physical contact between the four figures. Meanwhile in “The Third-Class Carriage” there is a crowd of women and men. Highlighting among them a young mother and her sleeping child showing the daily difficulties of a family apparently without a father.

Daumier also excelled in graphic work for magazines such as “La Caricature” and “Le Charivari”. In them he satirized the manners of the bourgeoisie and government officials.

It is also known as «Rue Transnonain», published on April 15, 1834 in the Association Mensuelle Magazine. There the violent repression of a workers’ demonstration is shown. Although Daumier was not present, he manages to describe the brutality of the Louis-Philippe government.

Outside France we can mention:


It includes the group of painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and those of Ford Madox Brown. Those of the Newlyn school are also recognized as realists (7).


Thomas Eakins with his work «The Gross Clinic» and Winslow Homer with «Snap the Whip» (8).

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