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What Is, and Is Not, Realism?

"The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900" the St. Louis Art Museum, the Glasgow (Scotland) Art Gallery and Museum. November 1980-January 1982

an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum


The avant-garde is a historical construction rather like the French Revolution. The more one studies the French Revolution, the less one is sure exactly which events belong to it, who engaged in it, and for what motives: the events seem not to hang together with the continuity one had imagined, the people are difficult to classify, their motives disparate, purely personal, often mysterious. A report of a recent talk by one of the most distinguished authorities on the revolution, Richard Cobb, shows the state of the question:1

…we had Richard Cobb on July 24 arguing that the French Revolution should never have happened, possibly never did happen, and in any case had no effect one way or the other on most people’s lives. Revolutionary rhetoric, he said provocatively, is always meant to deceive—to conceal the “obscene truths” that constitute the revolution. His respectful audience—a mixed lot of tourists and academics—refused to be provoked, which led him, with some embarrassment, to qualify everything he had said, admitting to mischievous intent.

We cannot, clearly, rid history of the French Revolution (although we are no longer sure what it was), if only because people believed that it happened, and this continued belief represented an ideal of change, an image of hope and terror for centuries afterward.

The avant-garde embodies a similar ideal of historical change, an acknowledgement that the nature of art was radically altered from 1800 to 1950, and that this alteration, sometimes called the “modern tradition,” was achieved by a small group of artists and opposed, for the most part, by the government, the museums, the academy, and important sections of the press.

In painting, the radical change was the abandonment of the conception of space that had been dominant since the Renaissance—an infinite, continuous, homogeneous space prior to, and independent of, perception. The new spaces of avant-garde painting were often more subjective, or distorted by perception, deliberately flat as in Manet’s work, deformed by expressive violence in Edvard Munch. Space could be constituted by color as in Matisse, or fragmented and reordered as in cubism. The rejection of the familiar space of the Renaissance implied that perspective was no longer a simple and efficient system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a canvas.

The avant-garde also gradually destroyed the hierarchy of genres by which different kinds of painting had been classified for three centuries. The distinction between the sublime (history and religious painting) and the familiar (landscape, still life, scenes of daily life) was effectively abolished. Most important of all, the avant-garde realized the program of the Romantic movement, as far as such a project was realizable, and made painting an independent art with a comprehensible language of its own that needed no literary or historical explanation. Painting was no longer an illustrative art: it no longer served to embody a moral or to present a historical narrative.

It is now widely recognized that the traditional version of how these changes came about needs some revision. The myth of the avant-garde artist is too good to be true: the creative spirit savagely attacked by critics, mocked by the public, and struggling to assert his original conceptions in the teeth of a moribund academic tradition, who lives and works unsung and unhonored while the pictures that he sells for derisory sums make a fortune for dealers after his death. The Avant-Garde Painter is only too useful for explaining the history of art: the arduous but certain and continuous victory of the future over the past. Seen in this light, the avant-garde is identified as the force of history itself—without it the art of centuries would remain either static or, at best, vegetate slowly, the mutations only visible from a long perspective. The misunderstood and the rejected suddenly and violently displace the established and official: the history of art becomes like old-fashioned military history with campaigns, great generals, and glorious victories. Best of all, the underdog always wins.

We now realize that most of the avant-garde artists attacked by the critics had powerful defenders as well, even early in their careers; many of them not only enjoyed private incomes but sold their pictures at prices which made them fairly comfortable. Some, like Courbet, Delacroix, and Puvis de Chavannes, even saw their pictures well placed in museums alongside the masterpieces of the worst academic hacks. It was, in fact, the most conservative painter who occasionally had trouble making a living and the avant-garde who sometimes sold easily—much of the “modern tradition” is based on landscape, always popular in the nineteenth century, while the official style emphasized the life-size painting of religious and historical scenes—and what collector would have wanted to hang on his wall a representation three yards wide of the decapitation of Saint Denis?

Who belonged to the avant-garde—or, rather, to the successive waves of avant-garde movements from the Romanticism of Delacroix to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning—is a question to which the answers have recently become a little fuzzy around the edges. The opposition was not monolithic, and an artist as radical as Delacroix could turn late in life to a revival of the venerable tradition of historical and religious mural decorations.

But with all the inadequacy of the avant-garde as an all-embracing explanation of change (and it has many other faults too numerous to go into here), it remains indispensable to history; in fact, it helped to create history. The avant-garde is not simply a construction imposed post facto on an earlier reality; it was already constructed and embedded in that reality. It was believed in by artists and the public and helped to form the development of art, for better or worse. The avant-garde artist is a central Romantic hero, and the public of the 1820s and the 1870s expected of him the same excesses and much the same scandals as the public of the 1920s. In fact, the impossibility of rigidly defining the avant-garde is just what makes it useful: it is a mobile concept, which can be continually reshaped as we learn more about the period it covers. Recent attempts to get rid of it are as mischievous as Cobb’s witty deconstruction of the French Revolution.

The mischief is made largely by scholars, dealers, and museum curators who have no taste for the modern tradition and deplore the way successive avant-gardes have transformed painting beyond recognition for more than a century and a half. There is, of course, a great deal of art in the nineteenth century that lies outside the modern tradition, and some of it has attractions for almost anyone today; but most of this art lies on the margins of history. It contributed only in the most insignificant way to major changes in style. The history of art is not made up of everything that artists have done—it is hard even to imagine such a history.

In addition, the avant-garde has so influenced and shaped contemporary aesthetics—we all take for granted the public’s desire to be shocked, the artist’s search for originality—that most of the revival of official art takes the form of a provocative taste for kitsch. Most lovers of art with a sense of the modern only think that their legs are being pulled when, as a serious alternative to the work of Delacroix and Cézanne, they are offered the journalistic battle pictures of Horace Vernet or the once-famous portrayals of the executions of the English aristocracy which were the specialty of Paul Delaroche. Salvador Dali’s championship of Meissonier as the greatest painter of the nineteenth century still seems (in spite of Meissonier’s evident skill and his once formidable reputation) like one of Dali’s publicity-seeking pranks, along with his jumping through a department store window; and Dali’s evident sincerity, explicable by the Surrealist movement’s interest in kitsch and nineteenth-century nostalgia, has not been able to return Meissonier to his former status as a major figure.

The historians who detest modern art (and their name is, if not legion, at least platoon or squadron) have lately tried another strategy. They now claim that the simplistic division of nineteenth-century art into “avant-garde” and “official” is untenable, that the avant-garde itself was incoherent and inconsistent, and that the so-called “modern tradition” has no continuity.

Some recent exhibitions have been devoted to this revisionist thesis. The most important were “The Post-Impressionists” in London in 1979 and, most recently, “The Realist Tradition” shown in Cleveland, Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Glasgow in 1981, and recorded in the catalogue under review. The incoherence of both exhibitions was obviously considered a positive value and the organizers had a touching faith that progress in historiography was bound to take place if one could just forget what previous historians had written. The revisionists hoped to create a healthy and fruitful confusion—for Post-Impressionism, by putting in almost every kind of painting done between 1885 and 1910; for Realism, by including any manner of portraying contemporary life from 1830 to 1900.

In both shows, every appearance of selection was avoided. Nineteenth-century painting, it was implied, had a chaotic richness, teeming with life and variety, until art historians came along and imposed their rigid Manichaean categories of “avant-garde” versus “official” art.

The attack on the modern tradition should have succeeded, if anywhere, with the reconsideration of nineteenth-century Realism. Here, surely, was a movement which attempted to tie painting firmly to history and to life, which had apparently little interest in the modern tradition’s development of art as an autonomous language, independent of all other forms of expression. The signal failure of “The Realist Tradition” is perhaps more surprising than any of the other recent manifestations of antimodernist taste.

A Realist picture in this exhibition, organized by Gabriel Weisberg, is any work that deals with contemporary life, generally of a humble kind and preferably with humanitarian concerns. Other than this criterion of subject matter, there seems at first sight to be very little reason why some pictures are included and others not. The year 1830 was a poor choice for an opening date. One might ask why such an exhibition did not start with Géricault: his stark, direct representations of contemporary life would surely qualify as Realist works. Jacques-Louis David himself, in fact, had a powerful sense of contemporary reality, and was it not he who insisted on working from the model in reaction to his predecessors?

On the other hand, why did “The Realist Tradition” include Octave Tassaert, a Romantic painter whose charming and sentimental Studio Corner (1845), reproduced on the dust jacket of the catalogue, would be considered by most people as much less “Realist” than Delacroix’s wonderfully unaffected painting of the same subject dating some fifteen years earlier? Why is James Tissot absent? At least he thought of himself as a Realist.

The real problem of the show was a confusion between “realistic” and “Realist.” Realistic portrayal has existed in art for thousands of years, but nineteenth-century Realism was a very much more narrow affair; at least, so it was to the nineteenth century itself. The realistic rendition of a saint’s vestments had nothing to do with it, nor did effects of trompe l’oeil.

Weisberg and his team seem to prefer realistic rendition of Realist subject matter, but this is understood very loosely. In her essay on the drawings, Ms. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu dismisses Daumier, the astounding recorder of nineteenth-century Paris, as not a Realist draftsman because he did not draw directly from his models. It is not clear why it was not Realist to draw from memory, particularly if one had a memory like Daumier’s. Fortunately for the visitor to the show, the organizers were inconsistent enough to let Daumier in as a painter, no doubt on the grounds that it is all right for a Realist to paint, if not to draw, from memory.

These are only a few examples to show what at first seems to be mere confusion. What emerges clearly from the exhibition is an attempt to minimize the stature of artists like Courbet, Millet, Manet, and the other great figures generally considered as part of the avant-garde, and to transfer some of their prestige to Léon Bonvin, Isidore Pils, Théodule Ribot, and others who have little in common save their relative obscurity. How else justify an exhibition called “The Realist Tradition” where there are only two paintings by Courbet (an insignificant portrait and a lovely but minor landscape) and a dozen by Bonvin, an exhibition where Ribot is given more attention than Manet. Ribot, who specialized in painting cooks, was an imitator of the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Ribera: his works, monotonous in the long run, make an effective use of sharp contrasts of light and dark. Bonvin (1834-1866) was a Realist, indeed, but a timid, if agreeable, painter: nothing of his ever created the shock or even the consternation of the works of Courbet.

The entries in the catalogue make it amply evident that the confusion was deliberate. Here, for example, is the end of the entry on a mildly attractive Still Life with Asparagus, an intimate little painting by the very official and generally tiresome Philippe Rousseau:

Dedicated to A. Arago, a relative of Emmanuel Arago, director of the Beaux-Arts, the painting documents Rousseau’s official ties as well as his ability to paint in a free manner suggestive of the still lifes of Bonvin or Edouard Manet.

One must applaud the way Weisberg slips in the suggestion that these three painters can be mentioned in the same breath. The exhibition was devised to ensure this leveling, to make Bonvin seem as good as Courbet and Manet no better than Bastien-Lepage (a painter whom Pissaro particularly detested because he flirted with modern art while remaining profoundly alien to it).

In his introduction to the elaborate and useful catalogue, Sherman Lee, the director of the Cleveland Museum, is candid about the general intention. “Why,” he asks, “this exhibition? Why this growing curiosity about ‘antimodern’ aspects of the century of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism?” No doubt the quotation marks around “antimodern” are prophylactic, put there to reassure the uneasy. Nevertheless, the exhibition is indeed an assault on the view of the modern tradition that has Impressionism as its center. We are urged to renounce the distinction between the Realism of the avant-garde (from Courbet and Degas to Seurat) and all other manners of portraying contemporary life in the nineteenth century.

The relative consistency and the coherence of the avant-garde tradition becomes apparent, however, if we ask how the representation of contemporary life was conceived in mid-nineteenth-century art. We shall find, then, that painters as different as Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, Seurat, and Degas shared the technical innovations of the most interesting Realist writers of their time, and that this sets them off sharply from almost all the other painters in the exhibition.

Many artists and writers made doctrinaire statements about Realism, from Champfleury and Courbet to Zola; but the most articulate and profound expression of avant-garde Realist theory, its problems, goals, and working methods, is to be found in the correspondence of Flaubert, above all in the letters he wrote to Louise Colet at the time he was working on Madame Bovary. This is not to say that the psychological well-springs of Flaubert’s doctrine were the same as those that inspired the ideas of the Realist painters. They did not share the loathing for contemporary life we find in Flaubert’s letters. But it may well be that Flaubert’s peculiar antipathies enabled him to expound the doctrine of Realism with such definitive clarity. We must not be misled by labels, however: “I have written my book against Realism,” he told his publisher.


Out of a hatred of his own time, Flaubert paradoxically created a means of representing modern life which allowed it, with a minimum of distortion, both its own dignity and its integrity. Flaubert’s hatred, however, was almost pathological. He wrote to his friend Louis Bouillet on September 30, 1855:2

Against the stupidity of my era, I feel floods of hatred which choke me. Shit rises in my mouth as in strangled hernias. But I want to keep it, to solidify it, harden it. I want to make a paste out of it with which I shall daub the nineteenth century, the way indian pagodas were gilded with cow manure; and who knows? perhaps it will last?

The youthful failure of Flaubert’s attempt at imaginative writing in the high Romantic style, the rejection by his friends of the first vérsion of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, made him turn to the portrayal of contemporary life. He began Madame Bovary almost as a penance, ostensibly for therapeutic reasons, to cure himself of writing badly by inspiration, to force himself to write calculatedly well. For this, he needed a subject of no evident importance and of no interest to him—the suicide of a small-town physician’s wife. And, at least with one side of his nature, he hated the atmosphere and the characters of his book. No doubt some of the hatred was self-hatred, but the mechanisms of defense which he evolved, the radical changes he made in the relation of a novel to the reality it professes to describe, were useful to later writers more at ease with themselves or with the society in which they lived.

Flaubert was explicit about the way Madame Bovary was a cure for his own Romantic excesses. He predicted, however, that the cure itself would end by giving him an extreme and permanent disgust for writing about ordinary life. He added:

This is why it is so hard for me to write this book. I have to make great efforts to imagine my characters and then to make them talk, as I find them profoundly repulsive. But when I write something from my guts, it goes fast. However, there lies the danger. When one writes something of oneself, the sentence can be good in spurts (and lyrical minds achieve their effects easily and by following their natural inclinations), but the total composition fails, repetitions abound, redundancies, platitudes, banal phrases. On the contrary when one writes something imagined, since everything must flow from the conception, and the smallest comma depends upon the general plan, the attention bifurcates. One must keep the horizon in sight and at the same time look at one’s feet.3

Flaubert here emphasizes a paradox. To write from one’s guts produces the lyrical introspective work: to imagine something is to describe the reality of one’s time. This kind of alienation is not peculiar to Flaubert: it has a complex and fascinating history in the nineteenth century.

If the success and even the greatness of the conception of his novel derived, as Flaubert saw it, from his antipathy to the subject, this attitude was even more important for the smaller details and for the technique of representation itself. Here the most revealing document is Flaubert’s description of the problems of writing a crucial scene in Madame Bovary, when his heroine, troubled by her adultery, goes to see the priest.

At last I begin to see my way in my damned dialogue with the vicar. But frankly there are moments when I almost want to throw up, physically, the whole thing is so vile. I want to render the following situation. My little woman, Emma Bovary, in a fit of religion goes to church. At the door, she finds the vicar, who, in a dialogue (without any specific subject), proves to be so stupid, dull, inept, gross, that she goes away disgusted and unpious. And my vicar is a very good man, even excellent. But he only thinks of the physical (the suffering of the poor, the lack of bread or firewood) and has no idea of moral failings, of vague mystical aspirations—He is very chaste, carries out all his obligations—It has to be 6 or 7 pages at most, and without one comment or any analysis (all in direct dialogue).

This was the scene that Baudelaire was to single out in his review of the book. Its extraordinary effect depends, as Flaubert realized, on the absence of comment or analysis—on the apparent withdrawal of the author from the work.

This claim to objectivity made by the dispassionate style, by the absence not only of moral comment but even of any attempt to generalize the events of the novel, by the unwillingness to characterize the most sordid and repulsive events as atypical, exceptional, or indeed anything except run-of-the-mill—the pretense made by Flaubert’s style that the brute facts are speaking for themselves—this was the principal basis for the scandal caused by Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s revulsion is conveyed above all by his refusal to express it directly, a refusal which signifies his contempt for the society and culture portrayed in the book. What was most personal and most profound in Flaubert, therefore, was that which went without saying.

How conscious Flaubert was of the originality of this procedure comes out in a letter written five months later:

How hard dialogue is, when one wishes above all for it to have character! To paint by dialogue without its losing in vividness, precision and distinction, and still remaining banal, that is monstrous, and I know of no one who has done it in a book.4

“Still remaining banal”: that is the condition which preserves the integrity and the truth of Flaubert’s imaginative re-creation of contemporary life. It is as if the reality represented by Madame Bovary was to remain unaffected, even untouched, by the “vividness, precision and distinction,” which were the ideals of Flaubert’s art.

In another letter, Flaubert is even more explicit on this radical opposition between style and content:

What I find so difficult are ordinary situations and trivial dialogue. To write the mediocre beautifully,5 and at the same time to have it retain its aspect, its shape, its very words, that is truly diabolical, and I am faced now with the perspective of these delights for at least thirty pages. One has to pay dearly for style.6

The style must remain uncontaminated by the mediocrity of the characters and situations, uncorrupted by triviality. At the same time, the characters and situations are hermetically sealed from the aestheticism of the style. Flaubert wants to maintain a double purity. (It should also be clear that, in Flaubert’s hands, the grace and distinction of the style is a brutal, although oblique, comment on the triviality of the culture portrayed.)

For the mediocre to retain its mediocrity meant an abandonment of all those grand rhetorical gestures that writers had used to ennoble and idealize their material from classical times until the mid-nineteenth century. These gestures were still as essential to novelists of contemporary life like Dickens, Balzac, and George Sand as they had been to Cicero. Although in England women like Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth placed less reliance on elaborate rhetorical forms, their dialogue retained an elegance that generally divided it from the banality of ordinary speech. In accepting the most deadening mediocrity of speech as material for a work of art—one in which the triviality of the material was not concealed or varnished, but set into relief—Flaubert was taking an extraordinary step, as he himself understood. Idealizing rhetorical figures of speech appear in Madame Bovary only as parody—most strikingly and movingly in the parody of the text for extreme unction at the death of Emma, but generally with a malicious absurdity in the mouth of the pharmacist.

There is an ennobling rhetoric of events as well as of speech, and this, too, is avoided by Flaubert. None of his characters could shake his fist defiantly at Paris, as Balzac’s Rastignac does. None of them is capable of a great act; in his work truly unselfish gestures are made only by those who do not fully understand what they are doing.


This ascetic liberation from rhetoric has its parallels in the work of the great Realist painters from Courbet, Manet, and Degas to the Impressionists. Rhetorical figures of speech, conceived pictorially, are the idealizing formulas for pathos, the whole repertory of poses and gestures that the Renaissance artists derived from classical statuary and reliefs, and invented in new forms. Modulated formulas for grouping figures, especially pyramidal compositions, were used for the same idealizing purposes. David’s grand history paintings, such as the Oath of the Horatii, give formidable authority to this pictorial rhetoric.

For the most part, when these classical formulas turn up in Realist painting, they appear as quotation or as parody (most notably in Manet). In general, however, the traditional idealizing pose is absent; the force of the painting often depends on a sense of this absence. There is also an attempt, particularly striking in a few of Courbet’s paintings, to develop a new set of expressive gestures largely independent of the classical repertory—the strangely slumped figure on the left of the Wheat Sifters, for example. These sometimes succeeded in puzzling his contemporaries, like Delacroix. The great achievement of the Realist school in painting, however, was the acceptance of trivial, banal material and the refusal to ennoble it, idealize it, or even make it picturesque.

Flaubert’s realism is derived from his Romantic inheritance and is at the same time a partial renunciation of it. Realism had been an essential element of the Romantic tradition of the early nineteenth century. In such paintings as Géricault’s The Raft of the “Medusa,” based on an account of an actual shipwreck, the attempt was to deal adequately and nobly with contemporary life, to transform it into art. But Romantic alienation was not Flaubert’s method. “To make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar,” had been Novalis’s definition of Romantic art: Flaubert’s way demanded that the familiar remain familiar, and that the picturesque and exotic effects of the earlier Romantic artists be abandoned. What place was left then for art? Only the technique and the virtuosity of the means of representation.

If contemporary life was to be represented with all its banality, ugliness, and mediocrity undistorted, unromanticized, then the aesthetic interest had to be shifted from the objects represented to the means of representation. This is the justification of the indissoluble tie of mid-nineteenth-century Realism to art-for-art’s-sake; and although it is sometimes seen as an odd contradiction in Realism, it is, in fact, the condition of its existence.

The claim—not always justified—to represent reality with all of its ordinary matter-of-fact truth carried with it, as a kind of corollary, a belief in the aesthetic indifference of subject matter. In Flaubert’s words:

Therefore let us try and see things as they are, and not try to be cleverer than God. Once upon a time it was thought that only sugar cane could produce sugar. Nowadays it is extracted from almost everything; the same with poetry. Extract it from anything at all, for there are deposits in everything and everywhere: there is not an atom of matter that does not contain thought; and let us get accustomed to considering the world as a work of art, of which we must reproduce the processes in our works.7

This statement suggests the Romantic origins of the aesthetics of pure art as much as it does the Romantic sources of Flaubert’s Realism. But if the subject of a work is aesthetically indifferent, then the aesthetic significance comes to rest entirely on the style, which must attain an abstract beauty of its own absolutely independent of the subject.

For identical reasons, the Realist movement in painting from Courbet to the Impressionists appears as an initial move toward abstract art. In a recent issue of Art Journal, Richard Brettel wrote:

I can remember being terrified when I was a graduate student that someone would ask me to define Impressionism on my oral exam. The answer to the question could take a number of directions. Impressionism has been considered by some to be an extension of realism, the artistic equivalent of naturalism—and there is ample evidence to support those claims. Other scholars view the movement as a decisive break from realism in the direction of an autonomous modern art. As such, Impressionism plays two roles in the narrative of modern art, roles that are not exclusive but have rarely been considered together.8

But the “two roles,” an extension of Realism and an autonomous modern art, are only one; and, as we suggest, there was no break between Realism and Impressionism, much less a “decisive” one. The autonomy of art is already both implicit and explicit in Realism: it is the guarantee of the truth of what is being represented.

In order to heighten the effect of reality, painters throughout history have traditionally altered the balance between the perception of the picture as a design on a flat surface and as a suggestion of three-dimensional space; the tension between the two is central to European painting since the Middle Ages. The resistance of the picture surface could be decreased by making the paint smooth and inconspicuous, augmenting the three-dimensional effect and the vividness of the things represented, sometimes by brightening the palette in order to obtain striking effects of light. This was still the strategy of “official” painters like Meissonier and, a little later, Gérôme, who both insisted on the painting as an open window or an illusion. Since a painting is quite clearly not a real window, this insistence makes it simply an illusion. The eye goes right through the surface of a Meissonier painting into a world of fantasy. Such pictures are both realistic and unreal;9 they have nothing to do with Realism. The technique of the non-Realist nineteenth-century painter effaces itself politely before the image. We are first aware of the scene; the means of representation take second place.

Courbet’s procedure is precisely the opposite. By the time he painted his mature work, especially The Burial at Ornans, he insisted on the painted surface as no one had ever done before. Only the late Rembrandt had come close to it but never on this scale. The thick impasto is extremely apparent; the paint is often laid down with a palette knife rather than a brush so that it becomes a tangible, built-up crust which arrests the eye. Not for a moment are we allowed to believe that we dream, that we have in front of us a vivid but unreal world—an effect that Delacroix could still brilliantly exploit in The Death of Sardanapalus. On the contrary, with Courbet, we are forced to remember that we are in front of a work of art, a painting, a representation. Imagination as the power of visualizing dominates, while fantasy is banished. The insistence is entirely on representation, on painting as a transcription of the experience of things.10

Not that the things represented are of no interest or importance, but they preserve what might be called the ordinary indifference of their being. The burial that Courbet represents is strongly individualized and characterized because only the particular event has real existence; but it is not a special burial. To make it beautiful would make it special: it is the picture which is beautiful, not the burial, and the picture in no way embellishes the burial.

The painting is executed with all the originality and virtuosity that Courbet was capable of. And his gift was spectacular: Delacroix recognized it even in La Source, a painting he detested. The extraordinary facture, or working of the paint, in which both the material of the paint and the painter’s physical action are powerfully displayed, carries most of the aesthetic value of the work.

This new relation between the motif and the execution, this new emphasis on the material of paint itself, was later dramatized by Manet, often described as the first “pure painter,” and it is indissociable from what was considered by nineteenth-century viewers as a brutal realism or naturalism (the distinction is by no means always clear). The attention to paint goes hand in hand with what seemed an ostentatious indifference to what is represented. The public was shocked because Manet painted a face in exactly the same way as he painted a hat. We are today so captivated by the aesthetic qualities of the painted surface that we often find it hard to pay much attention to what is painted. The public of the 1860s, on the contrary, was much more attentive to what was painted and was upset by an apparently insufferable objectivity.

The Impressionists, whose admiration for Manet was never in any doubt, carried even further the aesthetic autonomy of the means of representation. In some of their most original works they gave a new and startling independence to the brushwork. With Manet the large and visible sketch-like brush strokes follow the shape of the objects represented; in some Impressionist works, however, the brushwork, smaller but highly visible, is evenly distributed on the canvas without regard to the forms, and it constitutes a palpable texture so unrelated to these forms that the public found the representation difficult to decipher. At the same time there is no doubt about the Realist intention of the Impressionists and their will to be true to visual sensation, to represent things strictly as they are seen without regard for what we know about them, even without regard for their solidity and structure. In the Realist tradition, the independent aesthetic aims of the Impressionist technique (whose originality was uncontested even if sometimes condemned) was a proof that what was represented had been left untouched, uncontaminated by art.

This is the first of two articles on the Realist tradition.


The Modern Tradition April 1, 1982

  1. 1

    The report is by Judith Chernaik, a scholar of English Romantic literature, in the Times Literary Supplement of August 7, 1981, page 919. 

  2. 2

    The original date is ascribed by Jean Bruneau in his Pléiade new edition of the correspondence. We have followed Bruneau’s dating in all our references. 

  3. 3

    August 26, 1853, page 416. 

  4. 4

    September 30, 1853, page 444. 

  5. 5

    Ecrire bien” has a strong meaning for Flaubert which “to write well” would not convey, and “écrire bien le médiocre” is a peculiar turn of phrase. “To write the mediocre beautifully” is the best we can do, but it is not very satisfactory. 

  6. 6

    September 12, 1853, page 429. 

  7. 7

    March 27, 1853, page 284. 

  8. 8

    Art Journal, Fall/Winter 1980, page 411. 

  9. 9

    When such devices are pushed to an extreme, as in some pre-Raphaelite works, especially those of the early years of the Brotherhood, around 1850, the effect is one of hallucination. 

  10. 10

    In an article on Turner (Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 1981, page 783), Lawrence Gowing writes: