European Painting 1850-1900 – Chapter 2
In Chapter 1, we discussed how realism in painting came to dominate the culture of mid 1800s.  As society and cultural values began to shift by the mid century, a new group of painters also started to re-examine the tradition of painting especially about its subject matter.  Increasingly, realism was no longer about the technique of illustration, but a direct reflection of their own time by recording their daily events.

Gustave Courbet was a realist painter and freedom thinker.  He was one of the first painters to challenge the prevailing thinking from the French Academy, particularly on the idea of realism.  Neither was he convinced about imaginations drawn up under the disguise of realism, nor was he obsessed with perfecting the technical skills of painting for the sake of visual beauty.  Rather, his idea of realism was to paint daily life directly and honestly by stripping away all pretenses and to portray life just the way it was.

Fig.7 Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans, 1850

After attending his grand uncle’s funeral, Courbet painted “Burial at Ornans” in 1850 on a large canvas measuring 10 feet tall by 22 feet long (Fig.7).  People in the painting were drawn up close, filling most of the canvas area and as a result, they were about life size.  People walking into an exhibition room to look at this picture could come under the impression of stepping into the funeral itself and standing next to the mourners witnessing the event. (See Fig. 8 for the relative size of a human figure to the painting) Courbet’s intent was to bring the viewers to face what he saw and imparted upon them his own feelings of sadness.  Even the distant landscape was rendered as bleak with cloudy sky and fading sunlight.  To Courbet, there was nothing glamorous in a burial where a dead person was simply lowered into a hole in the ground.

Fig. 8 Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans (relative size to human figure)
There is something to be mentioned about the size of an image.  Large images simply have greater visual impact to viewers because our bodies can relate empathetically to an object when it has an easily understandable human scale.  Courbet understood this instinctively and he drew up the people in more or less life-size to maximize the effect. 
The impact of Courbet’s treatment was indeed powerful.  Putting a funeral on a huge canvas drew both praise and contempt from the public.  Monumental paintings of this size had long been reserved for far more uplifting themes with dignified subject matters than what Courbet had chosen.  Such was the shock and outcry from the critics and many considered the painting ugly and inappropriate.  But for Courbet, this was the reality of life and the new definition of realism.  Painters should carry out their duty to reflect the reality honestly.

While daily life may not be glamorous, it certainly has its dignity.  At least this was how Millet saw it especially for those who worked in the countryside with their manual labor.  Jean-Francois Millet came from a peasant community in France and only slowly did he earn his way to become accepted as part of the cultural establishment.

Fig.9  Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

In 1857, Millet painted one of his most famous paintings, The Gleaners. (Fig 9)  In the painting, three peasants were bending down to pick up left over grains on the field after harvest.  The gesture suggested backbreaking hard work endured by many peasants as part of their daily living.  Concentrating on their work by looking down at the field, Millet did not reveal much of their faces either.  Perhaps Millet felt that their true identity was really rooted in what they did rather than how they appeared in front of people.  This approach in portraiture was in stark contrast to Ingres portraits in which the identity of the woman was not reflected in what her labor was but in her appearance; the tasteful interior decoration and her sumptuous clothing. (See Chapter 1, Fig. 5) But the most interesting aspect of this painting was how the peasants came to dominate the picture, and became the three monumental figures as if they were the real owner of the land.
Including peasants in a major piece of painting was not new, but treating them as the primary monumental figures was no doubt ground breaking.  Monumentality was a status typically reserved for prominent people or legendary figures.  By portraying the peasants as monumental figures, Millet was attempting to elevate their status equal to the past dignitaries and heroes of his time.  Like Courbet, Millet’s down to earth realism taught us to respect the dignity and strength of the peasants; and in return, his pictures won him many praises. 
If the lowly and the working class could became the primary subject of a monumental work, who else in the society could deserve a place in painting?  In 1863, Manet took on this challenge and created a nude painting for the exhibition in the Salon.  He called it Olympia, a nude courtesan lying on her bed. (Fig.10)

Fig.10  Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Fig.11  Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

Judging from the bodily gesture of the woman and the overall composition of the painting, it was obvious that the painting resembled several historical precedents, such as Venus of Urbino by Titan in 1538. (Fig.11) In fact, as a young painter, Manet must have learned or even copied old masters’ work during his study.  Therefore, one can look at Olympia as Manet’s personal re-interpretation of a familiar mythological subject.
What departed from Titan’s Venus of Urbino, however, was that the woman in Olympia was no longer the mythical Venus, but a flesh and blood courtesan of the 1860s.  Like Courbet, Manet discarded painting historical and mythical figures and rather pursued realism based on an honest observation of modern life.  Such interpretation of historical precedents might actually reflect his disdain to the undercurrent of the affluent class as courtesans were often visited.  It also reflected his discontentment towards the contemporary culture, where the sexual fetish of the upper class towards women was often sanctioned by the Academy and exercised under the disguise of mythical figural appreciation.  Being born into an affluent family and possibly exposed to the courtesan culture, Manet must have felt the dishonesty in painting bounded by such academic tradition.
Even more penetrating and provocative was that Manet painted Olympia with her defiant stares, looking straight at the viewer without shame.  Her eyesight told us that she was demanding her recognition as part of the established social circle.  She could no longer accept her status as being someone subservient and hidden away.  From the flower bouquet brought to her by her black maid, we knew that she was indeed admired by many.  This clearly bolstered her confidence in who she was and what she did.  It prompted her to present her bare body in just the way she was sought after and exploited.
This stinging portrait stirred uproar from those who condemned it as vulgar but also triggered an immediate re-examination of the collective public moral conscience.  With a few decisive brushstrokes, Manet stripped away the social hypocrisy, which was so prevalent at his time.  To Manet, realism was not only about what we liked to see, but also what we avoided to see.  Realism, to Manet, demanded honesty despite the pain required to overcome our own inner hypocritical conflict.
Not all new subjects of the second half of 19th century were socially oriented.  New painters brought fresh approaches to old subjects.  Little unknown and born in the United States, Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an accomplished impressionist painter and printmaker of her time.  She excelled in a series of paintings portraying the intimate relationship between the mother and her child, many of them infants. 

Fig.12  Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola, 1514

Fig.13  Mary Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed, 1897

The theme of mother and child has its historical precedent in Madonna and Child frequently painted by Raphael. (Fig.12) They belonged to a group of religious painting often commissioned by churches.  Taking the same theme, however, Cassatt transformed such genre from religious to domestic setting.  In 1897, Mary painted Breakfast in Bed. (Fig.13) The mother in the picture was looking intently at her child and holding her securely with her locking hands, signaling her love and attention being rendered to her child at all time.  On the other hand, the child was looking at the outside world with little awareness of her mother’s attention, telling us that she wanted to be free and independent. Cassatt’s skillful perception allowed her to convey such a moment in which one could foresee the fundamental tension between the mother and the child for years to come.
We noticed with all of the above paintings, there was something new besides from their subject matters.  The paintings simply looked different from the Neo-Classical period.  Something unusual was introduced into the visual qualities of the paintings.  In the next chapter, we will explore their drawing technique and discuss what was being altered and changed from the classical tradition.