The transition to realism is, to a large degree, the result of the increasing impact of industrialism on ordinary life. Likewise, Marx and Engels' "Communist Manifesto" is a response to the same changes because the creation of new technologies fundamentally changes the relationships that people have to work. These technologies, which include the mass production of media, make the interchange of ideas easier and more far-reaching. One implication of mass production is that the public has a new relationship to art, which no longer refers exclusively to things seen in museums or the salon. As a popular visual culture comes into existence, so does censorship: images can be threatening because they can also be subversive in ways that language sometimes can't be. Ultimately, realism has the potential to be a much more political form of art than Romanticism because it eliminates the overlay of exotic or mythological history. This was, in fact, one of the increasing criticisms made against both Romanticism and Neo-classicism: that both forms of art did not address the present in a direct manner.
|Daumier: Gargantua, lithograph, 1831||Daumier: The Masks of 1831, lithograph|
By the 1830s, print media in France
had assumed an unprecedented position of importance in terms of influencing
people and the popular culture. Caricature was a central part of
this importance and Daumier was a leading caricaturist. Gargantua,
an irreverent and scatalogical examination of the waste and taxation policies
of Louis Philippe, resulted in Daumier's arrest and the shut-down of the
newspaper which published his lithograph. The Masks continues
to mock Louis Philippe and his ministers, combining one of Daumier's favorite
motifs, the pear-king (in conversational French, pear means "dullard" or
"fathead") with the stylized faces of his ministers, presumably telling
him what he wants to hear. Some of the social commentary in Gargantua
comes from the French association of the king's body (as a real human body)
with the body of the state (a metaphorical body). Satirizing one
meant satirizing the other.
|Daumier: Rue Transnonian, April 15, 1834 (litho., 1834)|
Based on a real event (although
Daumier did not paint the scene from life), the Rue Transnonian
refers to an incident in which the National Guard raided the homes of innocent
people, in search of a rebel, and killed everyone they found, regardless
of age or gender or innocence. A powerful work in its own right,
Transnonian marked a change we have already encountered in the work
of Romantic artists such as Delacroix, Goya and Gericault -- an interest
in portraying the victims of war rather than the heroes. Daumier,
however, eliminates the passionate and heated emotional tones of a Romantic
painting as well as the allegorizing presence of a figure such as Liberty.
Without the refuge of beautiful paint, we are confronted with a seemingly
more objective account of atrocity, a format which will become much more
familiar after the invention of photography although it did not need photography
to come into existence.
|Timothy O'Sullivan: A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863 (albumen-silver print)|
|Meissonier: Memory of Civil War (Barricade on the Rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848) (1848, 11 x 8")||Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830|
The comparison between Meissonier's painting and Delacroix is instructive, given that both are painting similar events. The 1848 revolution was unquestionably a bloodier event than the 3-day revolution which Delacroix painted, but Delacroix, despite the dark tonality in his painting, gives us a much more brilliantly lit painting in which the black and brown tones separate around the presence of Liberty to suggest triumph and revelation (triumph and revolution?). Meissonier, despite using reddish and violet tones, creates a painting in which war is not illuminating but squalid and torrid. Both artists were painting rebellions and barricaded streets strewn with dead bodies, and both used the French tri-color symbolism to make a statement about France. But without the figure of Liberty suggesting the way out, we are left with little more than the vision of trampled dead bodies which have almost no greater individuality than the rubble underneath them.
|Gustave Courbet: Burial at Ornans, 1849 (10' x 22')|
In the Burial at Ornans,
Courbet initiates a strategy we will encounter in the later painting, The
Artist's Studio. This is a strategy of contradiction: what we
see makes visual sense but as we break it apart and analyze it, the painting
seems to be rife with contradictions. In Burial, the contradictions
take place on the order of painting conventions: typically, very large
or monumental art works deal with history and religious subject matter.
The Burial is quite large, and the subject has some relationship
to religion, but it is not treated as a religious painting. Although
Courbet locates the painting in a specific place (Ornans), it is a place
which very few people would have known. Finally, the painting contains
51 portraits of people who seem to come from different social classes and
have grouped themselves by class or role in society, without interacting
across these "boundaries." In the end, Courbet's painting is not
truly about the funeral; his subject is the existence of social contradictions
in rural French society in the mid-19th century. His composition
-- rather than the visible subject -- which includes some visual, spatial
contradictions as well as these other contradictions of convention is the
key to the meaning of the painting. It is this new tendency, to use
the method or style of painting to communicate subject matter, which becomes
characteristic of modernism.
|Courbet: The Stonebreakers, 1849-50||Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners, 1857 (33" x 44")|
In Millet's painting, what looks
like a transparent rendering of poor women searching for left-overs after
the harvesting is done is a painting which has ennobled the women.
The large expanse of land and sky, the distant suggestion of a cathedral,
and the fact that there are three women (why three?) combine to suggest
a spiritual tone rather than condemnation or despair. The Romantic
belief in the unity of nature and the individual is operative in Millet's
composition in a way that it is not in Courbet's Stonebreakers.
The men in Courbet's painting are trapped -- the mountain behind them blocks
almost the entire sky and these men, young or old, will not escape their
backbreaking work or poverty. Both were painted after Marx had written
his Communist Manifesto: do these relate to the ideas in that work?
To some degree, both of them do. The Gleaners might be taken
as an image of women satisfying their own survival needs, but we know they
are supervised by the constable in the distance and they probably cannot
survive on the gleanings they find. The stonebreakers are performing
in an almost synchronized pattern suggesting that they have become machines,
in much the same way that Marx described the lower class worker, and the
fact that we do not see their faces confirms their alienation from us and
society. Both paintings were offensive to bourgeois viewers because
they reminded viewers of the existence of this underclass, but it is likely
that Courbet's painting was more so since it is a more despairing painting
|Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair, 1853-55 (8' X 16'7")|
Rosa Bonheur is a more naturalistic
painter than either Courbet or Millet. She is more like Millet, however,
in her tendency to idealize her subject matter. But like Courbet,
she fills the canvas with a parade of horses stretching from the left edge
to the right, and reinforces this movement with the rising line of trees
behind them. The Horse Fair is remarkable for its portrayal
of horses in motion, shown from almost every possible position.
|Courbet: The Artist's Studio: A Real Allegory of the Last 7 Years of My Life, 1855 (11'10" X 19'6")|
One key to this painting lies in the fact that Courbet is painting a landscape with a nude model standing by his side, seemingly filling an entirely useless role. Is he making a statement about the subject of female nudes, with his unidealized nude who in no way challenges the viewer? Or a statement about himself and his relationship to tradition in painting? Then we have the presence of the "audience" -- critics, friends, models for other paintings, dogs, a child... They do not really interact with him, nor does he interact with them. As we continue to take in this large scene of non-interacting figures, we begin to see an image of an artist who is separated and alienated from his audience, yet cannot survive without them. This theme of a union of existing in alienation from people one cannot exist without becomes a prominent theme in the mid-19th century to the extent that we can consider it a theme of modern life, in both literature and art. But Courbet is also telling us something else, and the title is the key to this other message. Allegories are not generally about real life, but Courbet's painting, a real allegory, is about real life. Yet it is about real life which has been artificially constructed to look like a painting. Courbet's "real allegory" tells us that realism, as an artistic movement, does have meaning which may go beyond what we see in front of us. It also tells us that the realism in a painting may be as artificial as the allegory we see in a painting of history or mythology.
But the more general meaning of the prostitute relates to the issue of commodification: the commodification of sexuality, of women (who signify sexuality, whether they are prostitutes or not), and of urban society. All of which means that the subject of the prostitute in art and literature is often a subject which has to do with the blurred boundaries of social life created by urbanization. In addition to that general understanding of the image, it had more metaphorical meanings.
Brothels provided regulated prostitution;
"clandestine" prostitution became more popular precisely because it was
secretive and therefore unregulated. Thus, not only was prostitution
a large part of Parisian life in the late 19th century, but it was also
a frequent and recognizable subject in paintings. That is the situation
which Manet responded to in his painting of Olympia and continued to suggest
in later paintings of women who do not clearly conform to social prescriptions
of any sort but are contrived to allow for fantasy, to suggest a clandestine
arrangement, to let the male customer appear guileless but still remain
the seducer, if he chooses.
|Manet: Olympia, 1863-5|
Manet's painting caused a scandal,
but it seems more likely that this response to his painting was a response
to his style and not to his subject. If we briefly compare his painting
to the one on which it appears to have been based, this might make sense:
|[Titian: Venus d'Urbino]|
But perhaps we can only understand
the scandal by seeing Olympia in the same context in which it was exhibited--along
with another painting by Manet, The Mockery of Christ.
|Manet: The Mockery of Christ, 1865||Manet: Olympia, 1865|
First, notice the reversal: in The Mockery, the man in the background confronts the viewer but Christ does not; in Olympia, she is the one who looks at the viewer but the maid in the background does not. It is of particular interest to note that these paintings were exhibited together and that the two paintings abound with oppositions: vertical/horizontal; discreet nudity/not discreet; male/female; religious-history/contemporary. Yet, almost precisely because of these oppositions, they foreground an identical theme: the body as a conflicted site of self-assertion and degradation, both spoken directly to the viewer. Olympia addresses the viewer herself with her gaze, making the viewer into a substitute for the user of her services. Christ does not confront the viewer but the guard standing behind him does. Again, the viewer is implicated, in this case as another of the people who mocked or tormented Christ. Both paintings, then, implicate or accuse the viewer of participating in devalued, degrading, or substandard behavior. But what precisely is Manet accusing the viewer of doing, since the viewer must look at his paintings if he's going to buy them? It would seem that Manet's target is not the individual viewer, then, but the contradictions of modern life--contradictions he addresses more completely near the end of his life in The Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
The realism of his painting more likely reflects his commitment to science -- in addition to studying art, he studied anatomy at the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and a dual commitment to science and art characterized his life. The people he painted, from scientists to artists to athletes, were people whose chosen activity combined the poetry and intuitive thinking of the artist with the rational precision of a scientist. This duality of science and art can also be seen as a union of the physical or manual with the intuitive and mental. In his most convincing paintings, we are invited to witness this union in the concentrated efforts of the rowers he painted and the portraits of scientists and doctors.
Although Eakins made a lot of portraits,
of both men and women, he also made a large number of paintings of rowers
-- outdoor scenes of active men. The rowers in these paintings are engaged
in rhythmic, demanding activity and they are lost in it, as if in a trance.
They tend to be horizontal paintings (as opposed to the vertical format
of his portraits), emphasizing a sense of expansiveness which supports
the idea of the rowers as a new type of hero -- the "heroes" of American
modern life. Rowing was an activity which could represent in visual
form some of the goals of 19th century masculine life.
It was a sport which required physical exertion and mental activity; a
sport which offered something to upper and lower classes -- to the laborer,
an opportunity to control the use of his body though his own mental exertions;
for men of the upper class, an opportunity to turn his mental activity
to physical goals.
|Eakins: Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871|
|Eakins: The Gross Clinic, 1875||detail from the Gross Clinic||Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632|
The Gross Clinic has generated
numerous interpretations, ranging from a psychoanalytic examination of
the painting as an Oedipal fantasy to more formalist analyses which focus
on the light hitting the forehead of Dr. Gross and his hand, as well as
the patient, and the relationship of the painting to Rembrandt's painting
of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. The formalist analysis
leads to an understanding of this painting as an expression of the poetic/scientist
theme in Eakins' art while the psychoanalytic or psychobiographical interpretation
leads to an understanding of the painting as using the personal insecurities
of the artist's life to create a metaphor or allegory about the instabilities
and insecurities of the late 19th century in American social life.
I don't think these interpretations necessarily exclude one another, especially
if we consider the dark, upper half of the painting as a "representation"
of the unconscious. The painting can then be understood as Eakins'
attempt to paint the image or look of psychology as a subject, and to use
the image of pyschology as the metaphor of the union of poetry and science
(or imagination and reason). Understanding the painting in this way reinforces
the idea that Romanticism did not simply vanish in the middle of the 19th
century --- as artists increasingly turned to realist subject matter, the
style of Romanticism and the goal of representing the interior and subjective
core of the artist continued to influence art. But at the same time,
we should be clear that Eakins' style demonstrates the extremely precise
naturalism of a realist painter, not a romantic.