While it may seem strange now, artists once sought to only depict idealized versions of people and nature. However, in response to the sudden upheavals that occurred throughout the 19th century and the growing concern for the scientific exploration of reality, artists sought to use paints to create artwork that depicted life as realistically as possible, out of both a fascination for life and a desire to rebel against social convention.
Realist art emerged in the 1840s and overlapped with the Romantic movement, with both movements competing with each other. The realist movement emerged from a time of major social change, in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848.
French paintings depicted their interest in democracy. British paintings were created in response to Victorian materialism.
The realists of Paris in the 19th century thought that painters should draw inspiration from their surroundings. More than anything, realists were inspired by science and sought to create art that was as realistic as possible.
Realistic art came out of a belief in science and its ability to solve human problems. Painters sought to create the most realistic depictions of scenery possible, rejecting romanticism, which was more focused on imagination and the subjective.
Realists placed much more emphasis on the effect of light on the scene, including the ways in which lighting makes the object have depth and the way objects cast shadows on other objects.
Instead of imitating old forms of artwork, realists tried to create artwork that represented what was understood about nature and contemporary life. Instead of following the collective standards of art, realist artists tried to develop their own particular style.
The biggest proponent of realism was Gustave Courbet, who was only interested in painting that which could be empirically proven.
Realism was not only concerned with accuracy, but also with philosophical issues. Realist artists sought perceptual truth and also sought to understand the inner reality of the subject.
Artists were willing to draw ordinary people engaging in daily activities. Artwork depicted the problems, customs and mores of people, with artists feeling that they should represent that which was neglected by painters in the past.
Much realistic art focused on the struggles of the working class during the Industrial Revolution, as they fought to avoid eliciting emotions and beauty in the average person that would justify oppression. Still life art also emerged from the realist movement.
Courbet’s "Burial at Omans" depicted a funeral and did not show death in a sentimental or glamorous way. Later, in Russia, realist art was used to depict loyal communist workers in a way designed to influence the attitudes of the people.