My EPQ: Realism

completed my Extended Project Qualification in October 2015. I received an A*. The title was ‘To what extent was political change the most important factor in influencing the creation of Realism in the 1800s?’ Here is an excerpt from the 5000 word essay I wrote, along with the presentation. I have included my bibliography below.

Read my tips on the EPQ here... 

Courbet, The Burial at Ornans (1850)

…His first great masterpiece was The Burial at Ornans (1850) which Chu (2010) states ‘caused a scandal at The Salon of 1850-1.’ The painting portrayed normal townspeople (rather than historical figures or famous aristocrats of the time) in a huddled, messy composition. Not only did the presentation of the piece concern critics, for it was too large and seemed to have no central figure, there was a definite unsettling political undercurrent to the work. Courbet’s jumbled composition was seen as ‘egalitarian’ and ‘republican’, portraying ‘equal representation’ (Chu, 2010). After gaining credibility and fame following the success of Burial, Courbet began to write political essays and dissertations on social and democratic policies. His ideas about the position of the lower classes, and the inevitability of their fate is a clear theme in all of his pieces. With The Stonebreakers (1850), Courbet hinted at this by depicting two men of indistinguishable age, which could be showing the inescapable life of a worker. Courbet described this as “Alas, in that class, that is how one begins and that is how one ends up,” (Chu, 2010). Another method that Courbet used in this painting was to shield the faces of the men, thereby dehumanising them and evoking how the workers were treated like machines, and were not valued for their individual human characteristics. A similar method can be seen in both Millet’s The Sower (1850) and The Gleaners (1857), both of which present their subjects in a way that hides their identities, thus alluding to the fact that they represent thousands. Courbet’s influence was vast, because of his revolutionary ideas about subject matter and portrayal. Novotny (2002) stated that ‘a list of the painters in whom [Courbet’s influence] is discernible would include practically all the leading figures.’ This, therefore, is a valuable starting point from where to discern the driving forces behind the Realist movement, as Courbet was clearly its primary creator.

Jean Francois Millet 

…Whereas Courbet’s paintings were quite overtly political –which was unsurprising considering his later involvement with the radical socialist government: the Paris Commune of 1871- and often aimed to ‘shock the bourgeois’ (Gombrich, 1950), Millet’s paintings seem to have a more subtle agenda. Born in 1814, Millet became renowned for his dedicated depiction of peasant life, and would later be called the ‘founder’ of the nineteenth-century approach to these subjects (Chu, 2010).  Whereas Courbet’s work often seems to invoke sympathy, Millet’s demands respect. Although the majority of his peasants are bent –often carrying produce or gleaning a field- they do not seem to cower under their burdens, but have a certain determination about them. Millet was able to portray the hardship and brutal truth of life as a peasant but he was also able to interlace this with dignity. Perhaps it is for this reason that, even more than Courbet, Millet is seen as ‘the model of twentieth-century social realism’ (Eitner, 2002)…

…Thus, the motivations behind these two most prominent Realist painters seem to range from political to social. Initially, it seems from analysing their paintings that Courbet was more politically motivated whereas Millet seemed to have a more emotional, social agenda. But there were other factors which may have affected them more subtly, and these factors will be analysed in the ensuing essay…
Daumier, The Fugitives (1850) 

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of life at the time- in the mid 1800s- was the constant political upheaval that came with the revolutions that spread across Europe, which is why Realism is thought to be politically fuelled. The biggest example of political change was the 1848 Revolutions.
In Sicily the workers of Palermo rose up in January 1848 with a cry of “To arms, sons of Sicily; our united force will be invincible!” (Pearce, Stiles, 2008) Spurred on by this the rest of Europe soon broke out into revolution, the majority of which were led by the workers. Although the Sicilians were also angered by a cholera outbreak in 1846 (for which they blamed government mismanagement), the rest of the revolutionaries shared the same goal: they all wanted liberal reforms and for their respective monarchies to allow them constitutions. As well as this, there had been severe food shortages which soon affected economies across Europe. This contributed to the recession and massive unemployment in France, further increasing the discontent. (Pearce, Stiles, 2008) The political upheaval had a profound effect on the art world. The art from that year’s Salon reflects the impact the events of 1848 had had on the artists. Chu (2010) describes that whilst some artists were deeply affected by the hardship seen in these years of strife, others had been ‘swept up in the republican enthusiasm’ and created artworks with this type of agenda...
Millet, The Winnower, (1868)

…In times of change, art is often produced as a way to capture a people’s collective emotion, whether that be fear, anger, or determination. The art of the Realists best captured this change in the zeitgeist, and Daumier was one such artist. Not to be dismissed as just a caricaturist, Honoré Daumier offered a commentary on 19th Century social and political life in France. Although satirical, his art was not created for comedic purposes. It often had very poignant messages. It gained much material in the aftermath of the revolutions, as can be seen in The Fugitives (1870), which depicted the mass movement of people, driven by hunger to wander through central Europe in search of food and shelter, (Chu, 2010). Whereas The Fugitives was a clear comment on contemporary events, other Realist artists were more subtle in their messages, although this did not prevent them from being labelled political activists. A way in which the depiction of political ideas was achieved, particularly by Millet, was to portray the peasants in a heroic, quasi-allegorical manner.  For instance in The Sower or The Winnower (1868), the statures of the men seem determined and strong, much like the recent revolutionaries would have been. The critics of the Realists certainly thought their art was political provocation. They attacked Millet’s The Gleaners by saying “the pikes of [the revolutions of] 1793 seem to rise up behind these figures,” (Lorenz,2002) finding it to be a depiction of the recent political turbulence. A similar theme can be sensed in Millet’s The Winnower, in which the worker wears a red hat: the Phrygian slave cap. It was used as an emotive symbol in the 1789 French revolution, and the fact it was being used again in the mid 1800s shows that people still held onto these revolutionary dreams and beliefs and demonstrates that they thought these goals could fully be achieved in the current century (Ansell, 2012)…

Millet, The Gleaners, 1857


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