FROM REALISM
TO
IMPRESSIONISM
We have already seen how romantic artists rejected the ideals of neoclassicism; from romanticism onward,
almost all artistic movements have reacted to the style that preceded them and claimed to be in the
forefront—the avant-garde—of artistic developments. Yet, every style or movement has connections to
the past, no matter how violently artists may deny those connections.
The reaction to the escapism and passion of romanticism was the dispassionate recording of actual
contemporary life. Although realism is a term we have used throughout this overview of art history, in the
mid nineteenth century, realism was used to designate a particular style that claimed to record exactly what
was seen and that often had a socialist political meaning. Around 1850 working class people were trying to
gain political power, inspired by Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto which was published in 1848. That same
year, the workers of France overthrew the July monarchy and established a short-lived democratic
government. So a landscape would no longer show humans in control of nature as a classical landscape
might, nor would it show the overwhelming power of nature as it did in the romantic era. Rather, the realist
landscape focused on the peasants who work the land. Realists generally avoided allegorical meanings and
references to the art of the past, however, the individual artists whom we group together as realists do not
always fit the definition precisely. Manet, for example, is considered a realist, although one of his most
famous works shows middle-class businessmen in an extremely unrealistic situation set in a composition
copied from Raphael.
The invention of photography had an important effect on nineteenth-century painting. In the late 1830s a
series of experiments led to the development of the daguerreotype process, in which a copper plate coated
with light sensitive material was exposed, developed, and permanently fixed. This was the first practical
form of photography although the daguerreotype process required long exposure times (as much as thirty
minutes) and resulted in only a single image, which could not be reproduced. It was not until the 1840s
that photographic images could be reproduced from negatives and printed on paper. Although nineteenth
century photographers who sought to elevate photography to the level of art tended to compose their
images in ways that recalled earlier styles (this approach is called pictorialism), almost all the innovative
painters of the time were fascinated with the intriguing effects that photography produced. By the 1850s,
photography was advanced enough to capture movement in split-second exposures, and painters used
these photographs to portray actions more realistically. Painters were also intrigued by the unedited nature
of the image, the lighting effects of flash photography, and by the concept of creating images with light
itself.
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