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Romanticism Vs. Realism Essay, Research Paper

Romanticism vs. Realism

Artistic movements in the 19th century were direct reactions towards (or against) political and social situations during the time. Romanticism was a movement against the ideas of the Enlightenment that had been ingrained into European people since the early 1700s. The Enlightenment emphasized reason and uniform ideals in the arts. Romanticism can be seen as a direct revolt against the Enlightenment. Romantic artists constantly strived for unique and different ideas, whereas the thinkers of the Enlightenment valued uniformity. (Art Periods: Romanticism) Realism, in contrast to Romanticism, showed an objective, unemotional view of the world. The goal of Realist artists was to record an impartial view of the ideas of French society in the 19th century. The major contributor to the development of Realism was the social and political unrest in Europe in 1848. The French painters reacted to the three-day revolution in February of that year. At the end of the revolution, Louis-Philippe resigned, which led to several consecutive disorganized governments that attempted to lessen the severe unemployment problems. Realism began to depict ordinary workers and farming communities in scenes of everyday life. The paintings from this period are very true to life without any flourishes. (Rosenblum, pg.218)

An exceptional example of a Romantic painting is The Hay Wain by John Constable. (Rosenblum, pg. 157-158) It is a picture that conveys the Romantic idea that nature is the embodiment of all possible feelings. (class notes) The Hay Wain won a gold medal at the Salon of 1824 and was innovative because of Constable’s use of a palette knife to apply paint. A major contributing factor in the genius of Constable’s work is that he painted his works outside, as a part of nature, rather than in a studio. (Rosenblum, pg.158) In this particular painting, as well as most of his others, he had a personal connection to the site that he was painting. It was created as a picture of his boyhood home in the Stour Valley and it is impossible to see it as an unbiased work because the artist’s feelings are so evident. The Romantic obsession with nature as representing truth and purity is portrayed at its best in this painting. In many ways it could be compared to a Garden of Eden, when put in the context of 19th century industrial London. (Rosenblum, pg.158)

Although the scene is of the working class, the hardships of the class are not seen. Farmers working in the hot sun are barely visible in the painting. It is, above all, a landscape painting meant to show the beauty of nature and to evoke feelings from the viewer, not a painting meant to show the unfairness forced on the working classes. The Hay Wain shows Constable’s affinity for the place where he grew up, not acknowledging the hardships that must have been a large part of farm life. (Rosenblum, pg.157-158) In Constable’s letter to Rev. Fisher from 1821, he explains his reasons for painting the places that he does. “Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate ‘my careless boyhood’ with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter…” (Holt, pg.115) His comment about painting being synonymous with feeling is a perfect illustration of the main beliefs of the Romantic Movement.

The method of painting The Hay Wain was unique in that the paint was partially applied with a palette knife, but it was also different because the brushwork was speckled and the colors were so energetic that individual details were difficult to pick out. (Rosenblum, pg.158) In another letter to Rev. Fisher from 1825, Constable writes about other artist’s opinions of his brushwork and color. “…Thought that as the colors are rough, they should be seen at a distance. They found the mistake and now acknowledge the richness of texture, and attention to the surface of things. They are struck with their vivacity and freshness, things unknown to their own pictures…it is worse that they make painful studies of individual articles singly, so that they look cut out, without belonging to the whole. And they neglect the look of nature altogether, under its various changes.” (Holt, pg.116) This thought of brushwork and color to portray nature and evoke feelings is central to the beliefs of the Romantic painters.

In contrast to the Romantic genre scene by Constable, The Stonebreakers by Courbet is a perfect example of a Realist painting. The actual painting itself was lost during World War II, so all that remains of its existence are reproductions, mostly from history books. It is a depiction of a real event that Courbet witnessed on the road to Maizieres. He saw two stonebreakers on the side of the road and had them go to his studio in Ornans to pose for him. As is inherent in Realist art, there is no emotion put into the painting. It is simply a straightforward recreation of a moment in time. There is, however, a reference to the never-ending cycle of work for this class of people. By putting an old man and a young boy in the same picture, he emphasizes the fact that the old man has been doing this hard labor all of his life and also implies that the young boy is destined to live the same life. (Rosenblum, pg. 224)

There are details in the picture that emphasize the adversity in the working class society, but they are shown in an unbiased and emotionless way. For example, the baggy pants, torn sock, and worn shoes all show the hardships of this class of people, but it is shown as simply a fact, not to evoke feelings as in Romanticism.

The thoughts of Courbet are the exact beliefs of the Realist Movement. In a letter to a group of students in 1861, he writes his basis for his ideas in art. “I deny that art can be taught…art is completely individual…art or talent to an artist can only be (in my opinion) the means of applying his personal faculties to the ideas and the objects of the time in which he lives…art in painting can only consist of the representation of objects that are visible and tangible to the artist…I believe that the artists of one century are completely incompetent when it comes to depicting the objects of a preceding or future century, in other words, to paint either the past or the future.” (Holt, pg.351) Courbet’s paintings were judged as not fit for exhibition in France on political grounds. (Time magazine) These ideas of Courbet’s are central to the broad beliefs of Realism, although Courbet did not consider himself to be of any particular movement. “I am Courbetist, that’s all. My painting is the only true one. I am the first and unique artist of the century; the others are students or drivellers.” (Time magazine) Realism does not strive for perfection, as in Romanticism. It accepts the natural beauty of things, even if they are imperfect.

Both of these pictures are characteristic of the time periods they come from. They have more similarities than is apparent at first, however. The fact that the paint on both pictures was applied in part with a palette knife is an important similarity. The purposes of this technique, however, were very different. The Hay Wain had paint applied in this way in order to evoke feelings from the viewer, while The Stonebreakers was done in this way to make the picture look less like a painting and more realistic. Both paintings also had the goal of finding Truth, but in Romanticism, truth was embodied by nature, in Realism truth was found in everyday events and normality. Although both of these paintings are of the working class, they make the viewer feel very different, which is what distinguishes the two periods.



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