a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

Millet, The Gleaners, French Realism, c. 1855

Daumier, Rue Transnonain, French Realism, c. 1835

Courbet, The Stonebreakers, French Realism, c. 1850

romanticism and realism


people, terms, and concepts: expression, idealization, painterly, expressive use of color, pathetic fallacy, contemporary, middle classes (bourgeoisie), working classes (proletariat), social criticism


Romanticism: Know the basic differences between Classicism and Romanticism in terms of form, subject matter, and overall artistic intent

     •  where Classical subject matter is relatively narrowly confined to Greco-Roman myth and history, Romantic subject matter is more varied, ranging from current events to bizarre legends: anything that conveys powerful emotions and intense experiences;

     •  where Classical form and composition are very clear, rational, and orderly, Romantic form tends to be more unusual and dramatic to increase the expressive impact of the work (for example, using diagonal or 'whirlpool' compositions; using intense color and light for expressive purposes, and so on);

     •  where the purpose of Classical art is didactic, the purpose of Romantic art is expressive: it tries to move your emotions rather than teaching you proper moral or social behavior.

Know that the quest of the Romantics for sincere, original, and intense expression led them to innovations over the Classical 'formulas' (innovations such as painterliness, the expressive use of color, and unusual compositions). Be able to discuss how Turner and Géricault enlist Romantic form to express their political views in the works below. Be able to discuss Turner's use of the sublime landscape and the pathetic fallacy in this regard as well. More generally, be aware of a new, Romantic idea of the artist (as unconventional and antisocial, highly emotional, politically radical, driven by a relentlessly creative fertile imagination, misunderstood during her or his lifetime but recognized as a genius after death, and so forth.) This is still quite a common stereotype today, but it is emphatically not true of all artists, either then or now.

Realism: Know the typical characteristics of French Realism:

     •  a tendency to depict contemporary life rather than history, mythology, or fantasy, and frequently the working classes (proletariat) at their daily labor, rather than heroes performing exemplary acts

     •  a tendency to depict things more realistically, even concentrating on the ugly, gritty, and unpleasant aspects of life, rather than idealizing and perfecting everything;     

     •  frequently, the intent to use art as social criticism, calling attention to the ills and injustices of society, and criticizing the ruling classes and the government.

Be able to relate these characteristics to the context of the mid-nineteenth century, especially the worsening conditions of the proletariat (lower-class manual laborers) during Industrialization. How are Courbet's Stonebreakers, Daumier's Rue Transnonain, and Millet's Gleaners, below, perfect examples of Realism in all of these respects?

Turner, The Slave Ship, English Romanticism, c. 1840

Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, French Romanticism, c. 1820