19th C Realism in France: Daumier and Courbet

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Realism or Get Real
This page is devoted primarily to the artists who worked in the "realist style" of art and literature. According to the Brittanica,

"Realism" in the arts, the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances. As such, realism in its broad sense has comprised many artistic currents in different civilizations. In the visual arts, for example, realism can be found in ancient Hellenistic Greek sculptures accurately portraying boxers and decrepit old women. The works of such 17th-century painters as Caravaggio, the Dutch genre painters, the Spanish painters José de Ribera, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Zurbarán, and the Le Nain brothers in France are realist in approach. The works of the 18th-century English novelists Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett may also be called realistic.Realism was not consciously adopted as an aesthetic program until the mid-19th century in France, however. Indeed, realism may be viewed as a major trend in French novels and paintings between 1850 and 1880. One of the first appearances of the term realism was in the Mercure français du XIXe siècle in 1826, in which the word is used to describe a doctrine based not upon imitating past artistic achievements but upon the truthful and accurate depiction of the models that nature and contemporary life offer the artist. The French proponents of realism were agreed in their rejection of the artificiality of both the Classicism and Romanticism of the academies and on the necessity for contemporaneity in an effective work of art. They attempted to portray the lives, appearances, problems, customs, and mores of the middle and lower classes, of the unexceptional, the ordinary, the humble, and the unadorned. Indeed, they conscientiously set themselves to reproducing all the hitherto-ignored aspects of contemporary life and society--its mental attitudes, physical settings, and material conditions.
Realism was stimulated by several intellectual developments in the first half of the 19th century. Among these were the anti-Romantic movement in Germany, with its emphasis on the common man as an artistic subject; Auguste Comte's Positivist philosophy, in which sociology's importance as the scientific study of society was emphasized; the rise of professional journalism, with its accurate and dispassionate recording of current events; and the development of photography, with its capability of mechanically reproducing visual appearances with extreme accuracy. All these developments stimulated interest in accurately recording contemporary life and society.


Honore Daumier, Gargantua, 1831, lithographIn 1830, after learning the still fairly new process of lithography, Honore Daumier (1808-1879) began to contribute political cartoons to the anti-government weekly journal, Caricature.  He was an ardent Republican and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment in 1832 for his attacks on King Louis-Philippe, whom he represented as the archetypal glutton in the political cartoon Gargantua.
Daumier's scene shows the monumental king on a toilet with a huge plank descending from his mouth like an extended tongue.  A pathetic crowd pressed into the right foreground -- consisting of cripples, emaciated mothers, and tattered workers -- gather in front of the Parisian skyline (e.g., the towers of Notre Dame can be seen at right middle-ground), while government ministers dutifully march up the plank to feed Louis-Philippe the underprivileged's taxes which he excretes to another crowd of officials standing below.  King Louis-Philippe was also sensitive to this political cartoon because of the manner in which Daumier depicted the monarch's head: it is shaped like a pear, which in French also means "block head" or stupid.
The above text is quoted from,
(however this link is no longer working)
Context according to the Brittanica,Satirical lithographs
In 1830 Daumier began his satirical work: his busts lampooning certain contemporary types and his many lithographs. He enjoyed the company of grandiloquent men and mainly associated with men of the left. It was at this time that Charles Philipon, a liberal journalist who had founded the opposition journal La Caricature, invited him to become a contributor.
King Louis-Philippe generally tolerated jokes at his expense, but, when unduly provoked, rather than bring suit against a paper, he preferred to seize it, a procedure that meant ruin for its staff and financial backers. Only once during his reign did he deal severely with an offender--with Daumier in 1832, and then only after the second of the artist's most violent attacks. Sentenced to six months in prison, Daumier spent two of them in the state prison and four in a mental hospital, the king apparently wanting to show that one had to be mad to oppose and caricature him.
After his release in February 1833, Daumier was never again indicted, even though in his cartoons he continued to attack a regime, a form of society, and a concept of life that he scorned, while at the same time creating unforgettable characters. Daumier's types were universal: businessmen, lawyers, doctors, professors, and petits bourgeois. His treatment of his lithographs was sculptural, leading Balzac to say about him that he had a bit of Michelangelo under his skin.

(the italicized portions, in outline form, are directly quoted from
1839           Daguerreotype presented
1848           Communist Manifesto
1848-52     Revolution in Europe
1859           Charles Darwin publishes Origin of Species
1861-65     American Civil War
1873            Clerk-Maxwell Theory of Electro-magnetic Radiation
1891           First movie camera patented
1884           1st Salon des Artistes Independants (Salon of Independents)
1886           8th and last Impressionist exhibition
1900           Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
1903           First flight of the Wright brothers
1905-15     Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity
1914-18     World War I
  • Painting of Modern Life: Realism
  • subjects from everyday world
  • factual, commonplace, not idealized
  • Rail Road- import and export goods into cities 
  • Creates a division on class- "upper middle class" who can afford to see art, also music, theatre, and literature
  • machine made goods 
  • 1848 -1854 French Revolution 
  • 1861- 1865 U.S. Civil War
  • 1871 Suez Canal open in Northern Africa. Germans and French establish trade

  • Karl Marx- Socialism on the rise. According to the text "Karl Marx believed that the laws of human society could be discovered by science and used to construct what he called the golden age of humanity.

Excerpted from,
Vitality's signature. by Robert Hughes, Time, 3/8/93, Vol. 141 Issue 10, p62, 2p, 3bw HTML Full TextThe French artist Honore Daumier (1808-1879) is the cartoonist's god, though of course he is much more than that. It's impossible to think of an outstanding 20th century caricaturist, from David Low to Ronald Searle and David Levine, who doesn't owe something fundamental to him. Most people know him only through his prints, those distillations of vengeance in which, through a long career, Daumier impaled the dignitaries of bourgeois France on his lithographic crayon. No greater visual satirist ever lived; none, one may be fairly sure, ever will.
The diffusion of Daumier's satirical prints has been such that they tend to overshadow the rest of his work. Toiling against unrelenting deadlines, working sometimes on eight stones at a time, he made literally thousands of them for magazines like Le Charivari. In fact there were only two moments when he was able to give his time entirely to drawing and painting for their own sakes, producing images that were not designed for mass reproduction. The first was just after the 1848 revolution, when press censorship put him out of work. The second was after 1860, when he was fired for a time by Le Charivari. Nobody can guess how many watercolors and drawings he turned out during these interludes -- one of his writer friends, Theodore de Banville, remembered a studio full of ``cartons overflowing with drawings, so swollen that they could not be shut'' -- but only a tiny fraction of them has survived. Quite a lot of that fraction went on view last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in ``Daumier Drawings,'' jointly organized by the Met and the Stadelsche Kunstinstitut of Frankfurt.
To see this exhibition is to see why Charles Baudelaire, reviewing the Paris Salon of 1845, placed Daumier, as a draftsman, in the company of Ingres and Delacroix. He was, of course, different from both. Unlike Ingres, Daumier wasn't interested in ideal form or perfect ``Greek'' contour, even though classical prototypes inform his work -- how far, one can easily judge from his scenes of refugees straggling across an open landscape, which bear a distinct relation to the friezes on Trajan's Column, known to him from engravings. He loved to guy the sacred Antique, but it was the kind of satire that could only be done by an artist fully intimate with his target. And although he got a lot from Delacroix, admiring the fluidity of his line and the power the older artist brought to painting the victims of barbaric force -- Delacroix's Massacre at Chios has a long resonance in Daumier's work -- Daumier didn't share his love of the exotic. For Daumier, everything worth drawing happened right under his nose, in the railway carriage, the estaminet, the cellar, the butcher's shop or the lawcourts. Like Balzac or Dickens, Daumier worked out of immersion in the muck and detail of life as it was lived.
In his hands, the act of drawing acquired an extraordinary power and range. It was, in one sense, sculptural: the dense shadows of ink wash convey the shape and width of a head or a body with such emphasis that you feel you could almost lift it off the page. Drawings like Two Men Conversing or The Drinkers are so vivid in their tonal structure, and at the same time so natural and unpretentious in their expression, that you feel included in the meetings they depict. Daumier's line is always in motion, and startlingly responsive to the perceived moment. It is rarely just an outline: it surrounds the form with the haze of energy, made up of scribbled marks, suggestions and hints. It is the record of a sensibility that continually probes and is always correcting itself in nuances. In other hands, such ambiguity would seem fluttering. In Daumier's, it is the signature of an explosive, unappeasable vitality. . .
His repertoire of expression is immense. What artist ever did more with the smile, the shrug, the sneer of complicity, the lifted eyebrow -- the myriad signs of consciousness that lie outside the repertoire of classical art? Rapid movement is keyed into the very nature of Daumier's sketches. With their flicker of successive positions for a lawyer's hand, or a dog's legs, they burgeon in time as well as in space, thus seeming to predict Futurism. And indeed, just as Daumier's drawings contain his prehensile relation to the past, so they look forward to the more modern artists: the massive strong men and pathetic acrobats of Picasso's Rose Period are already in Daumier's carnival scenes. Giacometti was deeply influenced not only by Daumier's drawing but by his series of tiny, malignant caricature-sculptures in clay known as Les Celebrites du Juste Milieu.
If Daumier's appeal to other artists is inscribed on the art that came after him, his enduring popularity with a more general public comes from wider sources. Basically, Daumier lives because for more than a hundred years people have realized that he was on their side -- a tribune of the singly powerless against the collectively powerful. This is not an attitude an artist can simply adopt; he or she must feel it deep in the bones, as by instinct, which Daumier clearly did. 

Honore Daumier, 
Rue Transnonain, 1834
more on Daumier
Form:  Daumier's image incorporates dramatic shifts of chiaroscuro, tenebrism and radical foreshortening in an image which is at the same time photographic in its value structure yet somewhat cartoon like in its execution. This image is a lithographic print that was originally published in the news paper.  According to the Brittanica,  lithography is a
planographic printing process that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water.
In the lithographic process, ink is applied to a grease-treated image on the flat printing surface; nonimage (blank) areas, which hold moisture, repel the lithographic ink. This inked surface is then printed--either directly on paper, by means of a special press (as in most fine-art printmaking), or onto a rubber cylinder (as in commercial printing).The process was discovered in 1798 by Alois Senefelder of Munich, who used a porous Bavarian limestone for his plate (hence lithography, from Greek lithos, "stone"). The secret of lithographic printing was closely held until 1818, when Senefelder published Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography).
Iconography: Overtly this print is an attack on the French government.  It documents the results of events surrounding the uprisings in Paris during the 1830's.  During a riot in which many of the streets were barricaded, some paving stones were hurled down at police marching through the streets.  The police retaliated by storming one of the building that they thought contained the rebels and they killed all the residents.  According to the general population all of the residents were fast asleep and the police attacked innocent people and murdered everyone including the children and old people in their sleep.  Notice that in this image they are wearing nightshirts.  Daumier documents what he believes was the unjust death of these occupants.  The figures in this image are lit in the religious manner of Caravaggio and the pose of the central figure is reminiscent of many images of Christ and of the image by David of Marat.  Daumier adds a particularly goulish touch to this image by placing the body of an infant beneath the central figure.  Both lay in a puddle of blood.I might have the specifics of the story a bit off.  Here's some info from another website,
Despite serving time in prison for the content of his political cartoons, Daumier continued to criticize the French government.  For instance, when twelve Parisians were killed in a raid by government infantrymen because they had shown support for an uprising in another important French city, Daumier represented the massacre in the illustration Rue Transnonain(1834).  Unlike Gargantua, there is a total absence of caricature.  Instead, the victims are portrayed with realism.Daumier's Rue Transnonain is also important because the central dead adult has been appropriated from Delacroix's earlier revolutionary image Liberty Leading the People (1830).  More than likely, a contemporary French audience would have noticed how the prostrate figure in Daumier's image is placed in a similar pose to that of Delacroix's dead man in the right foreground below the allegorical figure.
The above text is quoted from,

Honore Daumier, Third Class Carriage, 1862
oil on canvas, 25"x35"

Honore Daumier, Third Class Carriage, 1862.

Honore Daumier, 
The Third-Class Carriage
Oil on canvas
25 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (65.4 x 90.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Form: These images all use reduced earthtoned palettes.  The compositions are symmetrical and stable.  The space is fairly shallow and arranged in bands with the focus of the image in the foreground.One of the most important aspects of these images is that Daumier has created multiple copies of the same image by using a process called grid and transfer or squaring.  According to the Brittanica,
"Squaring" in painting, simple technique for transferring an image from one surface to another (and sometimes converting the image from one scale to another) by non mechanical means. The original work to be transferred is divided into a given number of squares; the same number of squares is then marked off-- with charcoal or some other easily removable medium--on the surface of the receiving area. The contents of each square of the original are then drawn in the corresponding square of the reproduction. The use of the grid ensures the accurate placement of images onto the reproduction.The Egyptians used squaring at least 5,000 years ago. It has been used to transfer cartoons onto murals, to transfer preparatory drawings onto canvas paintings, and to alter the scale of any work in the same media.
This process is important because it demonstrates the influence of mechanical reproduction (photography and printmaking) on the practice of fine art.  Daumier is influenced by the technologies used to create his cartoons in the newspapers even when he makes fine art.  Daumier would have used the process of "squaring" to reproduce images like this on to lithographic stones and printmaking plates.This process was also used during the Renaissance.  Check this out:
Daumier's work is realistic but it is still stylized in a cartoon like manner.  His portraits of everyday people are more caricatures than attempts to capture a realistic or photographic realism.
Iconography:  Daumier is a lot like Hogarth.  Even in his use of the technology of printmaking to communicate and sell his work.  The iconography of Daumier's work (like Hogarth) deals primarily with Parisian and or French culture and its social organization.  His work often deals with social injustice but often his work documents and is a commentary on the structure of French society.
According to the Webmuseum,
Honore Daumier, a French artist, was deeply interested in people, especially the underprivileged. In Third-Class Carriage he shows us, with great compassion, a group of people on a train journey. We are especially concerned with one family group, the young mother tenderly holding her small child, the weary grandmother lost in her own thoughts, and the young boy fast asleep. The painting is done with simple power and economy of line. The hands, for example, are reduced to mere outlines but beautifully drawn. The bodies are as solid as clay, their bulk indicated by stressing the essential and avoiding the nonessential. These are not portraits of particular people but of mankind.
Hogarth's Third Class Carriage is also a commentary on the compressed and cramped existence of the French "third class" or lower class.  Even though they are doing the bulk of the work their carriage is decidedly less comfortable than the first class carriage below.  Notice also that the wealthy people in the first class carriage are not conversing or leaning against one another.  Their facial expressions are much more detached and aloof as well.  This in some ways demonstrates Daumier's empathy for the lower economic classes.  In some ways he is very Rousseau like in his egalitarianism.


Daumier, Honore 1808-1879
First-Class Carriage 1864
black chalk, wash, watercolor and 
conte crayon on wove paper 
Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery inv.37.1225

Daumier, Honore 1808-1879 French -
Third Class Carriage 
Berlin :Private Collection Gerstenberg Collection
Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornans1849 oil on canvas, 51x58"
Form: Courbet's paintings are rendered in a realist and a realistic/naturalistic manner.  His value structure, anatomy and color are all fairly well observed and true to life.  Nevertheless, Courbet also worked with some formal elements that were less naturalistic.  His color is made up of a palette of low key somber earth tones.  The composition of this image is traditional but a bit odd.  The grave is cropped in the center foreground and the figures stand in a frieze like band just behind the hole.  The background's sky and low flat mountains are almost surreal (dreamlike) in their appearance.  His paint quality is a bit unique in that he incorporates the use of impastos in his work.  He employed a heavy use of the palette knife to literally trowel the paint on to the surface of the canvas.  The figures in the image are realistic but they are also "types" of people and in some ways their rough and course features are almost caricaturish in how they are rendered.
Iconography:  The Burial at Ornans, depicts "real" people attending the funeral of a common or "real" person.  Courbet specialized in working class people and ordinary landscapes.  He took the idea of "History Painting" and expands on it by heroicizing the ugly common people of the country whom he had a great amount of sympathy for.  In some ways he is creating a monument for the common French peasant but the image also has some of the moralizing memento mori like warnings contained in Masaccio's "Trinity with Donors."  The hole in the foreground is very similar in its symbology to Masaccio's skeleton.
The strange truncated grave of the buried peasant demonstrates his anti heroic composition and an interest in the documentary and formal qualities of photography.  His memento mori is an attempt to illustrate the common fate of all humanity and for him his painting was and attempt to show this in an unedited truth to perceived fact - "the here and now."  Even the formal qualities of using earthy tones and the rough impastos are for Courbet symbolic of the rough and drab nature of reality.
Context:  Courbet was considered the father of Realist movement in 19th century art and accepted the term "realism" to describe his art.
According to the Brittanica,
Courbet (b. June 10, 1819, Ornans, Fr. d. Dec. 31, 1877, La Tour-de-Peilz, Switz. ) was a
French painter and leader of the realist movement. Courbet rebelled against the Romantic painting of his day, turning to everyday events for his subject matter. His huge shadowed canvases with their solid groups of figures ("The Artist's Studio," 1855) drew sharp criticism from the establishment. From the 1860s a more sensuous and colorful manner prevailed in his work.Courbet was born in eastern France, the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. After attending both the Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon, he went to Paris in 1841, ostensibly to study law. He devoted himself more seriously, however, to studying the paintings of the masters in the Louvre. Father and son had great mutual respect, and, when Courbet told his father he intended to become a painter rather than a provincial lawyer, his father consented, saying, "If anyone gives up, it will be you, not me," and adding that, if necessary, he would sell his land and vineyards and even his houses.
Freed from all financial worry, young Courbet was able to devote himself entirely to his art. He gained technical proficiency by copying the pictures of Diego Velázquez, Ribera, and other 17th-century Spanish painters. In 1844, when he was 25, after several unsuccessful attempts, his self-portrait "Courbet with a Black Dog," painted in 1842, was accepted by the Salon--the only annual public exhibition of art in France, sponsored by the Royal Academy. When in the following years the jury for the Salon thrice rejected his work because of its unconventional style and bold subject matter, he remained undaunted and continued to submit it.
The Revolution of 1848 ushered in the Second Republic and a new liberal spirit that greatly affected the arts. The Salon held its exhibition not in the Louvre itself but in the adjoining galleries of the Tuileries. Courbet exhibited there in 1849, and his early work was greeted with considerable critical and public acclaim.
In 1849 he visited his family at Ornans to recover from the hectic life in Paris and, inspired again by his native countryside, produced two of his greatest paintings: "The Stone-Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans." Painted in 1849, "The Stone-Breakers" is a realistic rendering of two figures doing menial labour in a barren, rural setting. The "Burial at Ornans," from the following year, is a huge representation of a peasant funeral, containing more than 40 life-size figures. Both works depart radically from the more controlled, idealized pictures of either the Neoclassic or Romantic schools; they portray the life and emotions not of aristocratic personages but of humble peasants, and they do so with a realistic urgency. The fact that Courbet did not glorify his peasants but presented them boldly and starkly created a violent reaction in the art world.

Gustave Courbet, Stonebreakers 1849 
destroyed 1945 
French, Realism
Form: This painting is rendered in an even more frieze like manner than the his "Burial at Ornans."  Courbet's palette and paint quality remain consistent throughout the body of his work.  This work is earth toned and the brushwork is fairly rough and tangible.Iconography:  The Brittanica comments that ""The Stone-Breakers" is a realistic rendering of two figures doing menial labour in a barren, rural setting."  The subject matter of the painting demonstrates Courbet's sympathy for the plight of the rural poor; however, it is a plight he does nothing to remedy (his father was a wealthy farmer.)
Courbet heightens the pathos of the image by depicting two literally faceless workers.  As such one could imagine there own face on the workers or perhaps his message is that we don't really notice or acknowledge the individual identities of this faceless cast.  Nevertheless, he does identify their ages well enough.  The boy is too young to be doing the hard manual labour of breaking up stones and the straw hatted adult is too old.  The need for their hard work is evidenced in the worn and ragged clothing they wear.
Honore Daumier, 
This Year Venuses again!. . .  Always Venuses!  c1864

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus 1863 
Oil on canvas (4’ 2.7" x 7’ 3.75")
French Academic Painting or NeoclassicStokstad points out that Daumier was a bit of an art critique as well and that he commented on the reality of practicality of continuing in the typical Neoclassical and Academic traditions of painting the nude female form in the guise or "disguise" of classical goddesses.  In some ways, Daumier was pointing out that images like this not only had no relationship to 19th century French culture but was also possibly an immoral excuse to satisfy the appetites of the "male gaze."  Other French "Realist" authors felt similarly and Emile Zola, who wrote similarly themed realist literature to Flaubert pointed out the "realities" of the image above.
When Cabanel's Birth of Venus was presented at the salon of 1863, this painting was purchased by Napoleon III.  The novelist, Émile Zola (naturalism), rejected this painting calling it a "goddess drowning in a river of mud (who) looks like a very delectable tart, not in flesh and blood—that  would be indecent—but in a sort of pink and white marzipan."
The paintings of Manet take on a similar argument.


Manet, Edouard. Olympia 1863 Oil on canvas
51 3/8 x 74 3/4 in. 
French Realism

TIZIANO Vecellio (Titian) The Venus of Urbino 1538
Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm 
Italian Renaissance
Form: Manet was a realist in the same way that Courbet was.  He uses a "real" kind of palette of earthtones and local unsaturated colors.  His composition is a very traditional borrowing from Titian's work and he renders textures, figures and objects convincingly.  His brushwork is also a bit rough in some areas however it is no more rough than the brushwork of Velázquez.  His skin tones and lighting however are a bit disturbing and he lacks a strong sense of chiaroscuro in this image.
Iconography: This image is a kind of "answer" to the traditional art historical point of view concerning the female nude.  In this image, Manet, in a similar manner to Daumier's cartoon above, lampoons or parodies the tradition of painting Venuses.  In this case, he is directly commenting on Titian's painting.
For each element in Titian's painting, Manet reflects a similar one.  For example, the loyal sleeping dog in Titian's painting (which seems a bit sarcastic even there considering the context of the image) is echoed by the black cat arching it's back in Manet's image.  The dog in Titian's work is probably a reference to fidelity and constancy much as it is in Durer's print "The Knight, Death and The Devil" but Manet replaces this with a cat which is a symbol of feminine sexual power and witchcraft.  The tasteful textiles, surfaces and textures of Titian's work are replaced by a gaudy eclectic combination of textiles and wallpapers in Manet's work.  In fact, in 1850-51 the world's fair or exposition was hosted in Chatsworth, England by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert.  One of the purposes of the exposition was to instruct the masses in the ways of good taste and design.  Victoria and Albert noticed that thanks to industrialization textiles were in great abundance and fairly cheaply priced.  Victoria and Albert believed that the uneducated masses of England were combing fabrics and wallpapers without regard to taste.  Manet's painting is a fairly good example of this willy nilly combination.  Manet may have meant it as a statement concerning the taste of Olympia.
Please read Contrapposto Magazine Bringing Olympia Into the Present

Manet, Dejeuner sur l'herbe 1863. 
Oil on canvas 84" x 106"
Raimondi detail of The Judgement of Paris 1520
Stokstad discusses this image and its context extensively in the text.

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