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Realism: A Rational Response to Romanticism

A person who is overly sentimental and romantic is often checked with a reminder; to be more realistic. In the 19th century, since a collection of artists and literary composers went overboard with romanticism, it was only natural to be countered with a healthy dose of realism—assuming the ever-rising political and social issues. This is a rough outline of the directions of this art movement in the 19th century, which is in response to the Romanticism movement that lasted through the first four-decade of the 1800s. In essence, realism emerged to respond to aestheticism and emotional subject matters.

Winslow Homer. Snap the Whip, oil on canvas, 1872.

In the 1840s, France witnessed the bitter 1848 Revolution. Whether it was the wake-up call of the revolution, or the matter-of-the-fact projections of industrialism, or a mixture of both, Realism was born to paint a true portrait of contemporary society. Although the modern father of realism is the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, realism and its attributes are nothing new. This philosophic ideology dates back to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle is acknowledged as the traditional father of Realism; his school is better known as classic realism.

Besides the massive time gap, the difference between the two lies only in the terminology; similar to many other artistic concepts, the French were the first to name it. The term "realism" was first mentioned by the French novelist Champfleury in the 1840s. From the midst of literary pages, Realism appeared on canvases. Gustave Courbet, friend and compatriot of Champfleury, was the first to portray modern realism. The key elements in his paints were scenes of peasant and working-class lifestyles, urban landscapes, and popular cafes.

Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, Western art was mostly ruled by academic principles; theories that were rooted in and extracted from the history of painting and classical art. Art was defined as a convention between style and subject matter. As seen in most artworks and literary pieces, there is often a tangible gap, a sense of distance between the art or literary landscape, and the truth of reality. At the end of the aestheticism and Romantic era, naturalism was a short-blooming ideology. While it lasted a short while, naturalism morphed into realism and which set the ground for perfecting realistic perspectives and subject matters in the movement. Hence, realism looked for subjects and inspirations outside high art tradition.

Gustave Courbet, the Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, oil on canvas, 1855.

Truthfulness to details with an eye for uncensored corners of contemporary life were the key motifs of realism. While Romanticisms often paid due to the noble class and beauties of life, realism unidealized such sordid perceptions of living by focusing on all social classes. From a moral sense, realism became a tool to pay off the artistic debts to society by highlighting issues that needed pointing out and addressing. All combined to present life as it is and paint humankind in rather mediocre, nudely authentic, and occasionally in unglorified states of its day-to-day existence.

The chief concern of the movement is illustrating plain, unabbreviated imagery that comes to the eye. This resulted in art pieces that were much similar to life and its object, and literary works that delved into the intimate depths of the human mind and its projection in social and individual behaviors. Also, literary realism came to oppose dramatized storytelling. It was life itself in the form of words without smoothing down its sharp angles. Everyday experiences and lifestyle of a certain community is the nucleus of such literary works, often with a moral point of view on issues; from forced moral bankruptcy caused by poverty, struggles of the middle class, the under noticed savagery of the so-called noble class, to speaking the unspoken within religious or racial structures and all in between.

“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts―not to hurt others”. George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871

France. Jean-Francois Millet. The Gleaners, oil on canvas, 1857.

Real dialects and expressions that broke grammar rules and disciplines of the literary aesthetics, as well as plausible plots through which the character evolves mark the two significant highlights of realism in literature. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a well-versed example of realism and how it was perceived initially by eyes and ears that were used to the smooth finishes of Romantic literature. Upon its release, the book received waves after waves of criticism for being prudent in pointing out racial issues and using real dialogues with many intentional grammatical assaults to the English language.

“I knowed very well why [the words] wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.” Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

Artistic realism was, by definition, the natural form of life on canvas. Everyday life subjects and journalistic scenery were portrayed in an almost photographic manner—though the delightful brush strokes reserved the personal mark and unique zest of self-expression for the realist painters and sculptors. In essence, the expressive and direct messages, and unapologetic, yet truthful, notion of verisimilitude separate realism painting from classic realism.


Adewunmi Falode, The Theoretical Foundation of Realism, Lagos State University 2009.

Krzysztof Pijarsk, “Realism,” Embodied Subjects, Projection of Empathy, Lodz Film School. 2015.

A Theory of Literary Realism, Ali Taghizadeh English Department, Razi University, 2014

Phillip Barrish, The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism, 2011

Image Sources, Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. Jean-Francois Millet. The Gleaners, oil on canvas, 1857.

Courtesy of, Gustave Courbet, the Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, oil on canvas, 1855.

Courtesy of, Winslow Homer. Snap the Whip, oil on canvas, 1872.


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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