One evening at a dinner party, a lady is supposed to have turned to Degas and asked him aggressively, “Monsieur Degas, why do you make the women in your paintings so ugly?” and he replied, “Because women are generally ugly, Madame.” The story may not have all the authority one might desire, but it illuminates an essential facet of French avant-garde Realism. Degas’s pictures are beautiful, but the beauty of the picture in no way embellishes what is portrayed: the dancers in Degas’s famous ballet pictures are made neither more nor less attractive by the painting. Flaubert’s prose, distinguished and beautiful in itself, does not disturb the banality of the contemporary life he represented. Pictures and novels thereby can lay a double claim, first to absolute truth undistracted by aesthetic preconceptions, and then to abstract beauty, uninfluenced by the world that is represented.

Art for art’s sake and Realism are not polar opposites in the nineteenth century, but two sides of the same coin. It was the avant-garde that succeeded in uniting them. Attempts to blur this have been made in recent revivals of the more academic Realists (as we pointed out in the first part of our review of the exhibition and catalogue called The Realist Tradition),1 but the avant-garde stands largely alone in this achievement. In the writing of Flaubert and Zola, the painting of Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists, what is represented is aesthetically indifferent, although it has its moral and political importance—indeed, the moral importance of the scenes represented gets its full weight by appearing to be free from any artistic raison d’être.

At the same time, in avant-garde Realism there is an extreme insistence on the means of representation; the rhythm of the prose or the patterns of brush strokes are always obtrusively in evidence. We are always acutely conscious of the surface of the picture, the texture of the prose. Neither novel nor picture effaces itself modestly before the scene represented. A work of avant-garde Realism proclaims itself first as a solid, material art object, and only then allows us access to the contemporary world it portrays.

In avant-garde Realism, consequently, the beauty of the book or the picture always appears to be irrelevant to what is being represented. Stylistic forms that idealize had to be avoided at all cost. Flaubert’s practice and the theories he formulated in his letters to Louise Colet while writing Madame Bovary present (as we have tried to show earlier) the clearest and most powerful statement of the premises of Realism, in painting as well as literature. The way he was able to avoid idealization and yet achieve an extraordinary distinction in style has its parallels in most of the greatest Realist work of the nineteenth century.

Flaubert’s stylistic criteria are essentially negative—at least, the best way to approach his aesthetic is through what he rejected. In order to achieve “a prose that was really prose,” the techniques of verse were anathema to him: he carefully combed through his first drafts to remove all effects of rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. Certain rhythms of verse had to be avoided as well, above all the rhythm of the ennobling twelve-syllable Alexandrine line.2 The rhythm of his prose has an extraordinary asymmetrical grace: to achieve this he used to bellow his sentences out with great violence, which led his neighbors to believe that he was a lawyer practicing his harangues.

When Madame Bovary was coming out in serial form in the Revue de Paris, the editors were concerned because a newspaper named by Flaubert, Le Journal de Rouen, was a real paper; to avoid trouble, they suggested calling it Le Progressif de Rouen. Flaubert worried about this for days: “It will spoil the rhythm of my poor sentences,” he lamented comically. Finally he compromised on Le Fanal de Rouen; fanal (beacon) was a common name for newspapers and it had the same rhythm as Journal.

It would be a mistake, however, to reduce Flaubert’s style to questions of rhythm and sound, any more than the style of Courbet and Manet can be discussed solely in terms of color and line. Perhaps the most extraordinary innovation of Flaubert relates to the action: we may call it the suppressed metaphor. When Dr. Charles Bovary comes to treat Emma’s father, he is offered a liqueur by the young girl, who takes a glass herself with very little in it—she finishes it off by sticking her tongue into the tiny glass and licking the bottom. When he leaves the house, Charles first realizes that Emma is nubile and considers marriage. The sexual metaphor becomes a part of the causal structure of the novel.

This shows that the determinism of Flaubert’s novel is less a scientific theory than an aesthetic system. All the forces of Flaubert’s style are called up to represent Emma’s suicide as inevitable. “We were sitting on the schoolbenches” are the opening words of the book, and for three pages the narration is in the first-person plural. It is “we” who describe the hat little Charles Bovary wore on his first day in school, a hat so grotesque that “we” laughed riotously, and the little boy was punished by the teacher for his shyness. This form of narration never returns even once during the rest of the book, which continues with the objective thirdperson form. It is “we” who will cause Emma’s death: the traumatic sense of ridicule inflicted by the weight of social opinion on the little boy who will marry her was to make him forever incapable of the courage to change the mediocrity and boredom of the life he gives her. Emma, in turn, tries to live out the aspirations she has learned from cheap fiction, the only culture she knows, along with one performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. She ends by corrupting everything she touches.


The determinism allows the facts to speak for themselves without comment: the inevitability is an aesthetic quality. It is not merely a substitute for beauty, but is to be considered absolutely beautiful in itself. This is the key to a style that is both abstractly beautiful and that can exist only as a perfect representation of events which are absolutely not beautiful: the style represents the inevitability of the events, and is beautiful only insofar as it succeeds in making what happens seem inexorable.


To Flaubert, art is both representational and at the same time in itself pure and abstractly beautiful. This identity of representation and pure art (in a specifically modern sense) is made explicit by Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet encouraging her poetic ambitions:

When writing free yourself more and more from what is not pure Art. Always have the model in sight, and nothing further. You know enough to go far: take my word for it. Have faith. Have faith. I want (and I shall succeed) to see you get fired with enthusiasm for a caesura, a period, a run-on line—in short, for the form in itself, disregarding the subject just as you used to get fired with sentiment, with heart, with passion. Art is a representation, we must think only of representing.3

Pure form and representation, for Flaubert, are not opposed but identical. Along with heart, passion, and sentiment, the importance of “subject” is minimized: it is only, so to speak, the occasion for the form. This aesthetic made possible the greatest triumph of Madame Bovary, the agricultural fair, where one hears superimposed the lowing of the cattle, the sentimental sighs of Emma’s seducer, and the banal oratory of the mayor. Passages like this were to become the model and inspiration for Joyce and many other novelists. As Flaubert wrote proudly of this chapter: “If ever the effects of a symphony are to be transferred to a book, it will be here.”4

The relation between realistic style in literature and painting is brilliantly indicated by Albert Boime toward the end of his long recent book on Thomas Couture (1815-1879), a once-famous painter of grandes machines who cannot be satisfactorily pigeonholed either as avant-garde or as academic:

In Courbet the tension between style and that which it purported to describe pointed to a fundamental paradox of realism. For realism, far from harmonizing style and subject in a way that makes one forget the presence of a style, accentuated the gap between mundane reality and the artistic attempt to transcend it in the very act of describing it. Instead of defeating art, as some had feared, the practitioners of realism contributed powerfully to a cult of art. The examples of Champfleury, Courbet, the Goncourts and Flaubert are revealing. It was hard for them to describe banality in beautiful formal language, and their attempt to do so relates directly to their mannered stylistic approaches. Precisely to the extent that the artist wanted to deal with the commonplace, style tended to develop into an all-important value.5

Boime, however, wishes to see Couture’s work as a synthesis of all the important elements of the nineteenth century. He writes:

Courbet called for the unity of everyday life with the highest artistic concerns while Couture insisted on elevating unpoetic reality with a poetic vision compatible with the grand manner. Were these goals mutually exclusive?6

The only answer to Boime’s question is, unfortunately, yes: Couture’s and Courbet’s goals were indeed mutually exclusive. Couture continued the old idealizing rhetorical tradition, and Courbet’s aim was its destruction. Above all, Courbet’s Realism, in spite of its use of allegory, is a dramatic progress in what has been called “the disappearance of the subject.”


This can seem a puzzling idea; “subject” in nineteenth-century art criticism has an idiosyncratic sense, and cannot be identified either with “content” or “material.” Once again, for clarification, we may turn to Flaubert:

What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to do, is a book about nothing, a book without any exterior tie, which would hold together on its own by the inner force of its style, just as the earth stays up without support, a book which would have almost no subject, or at least where the subject would be almost invisible, if that is possible. The most beautiful works are those with the least material; the closer the expression is to the thought, the more the word sticks to it and disappears, the more beautiful it is.7

Madame Bovary was to be a partial realization of “a book about nothing”—partial, because Flaubert’s conception was to alter slightly as he wrote, and even more because “a novel without a subject” is an ideal unrealizable in all its purity. “Almost without a subject” is Flaubert’s prudent qualification. “Subject” is, therefore, not the action or the scene represented: it is what the action or scene is about. “Subject” is that which prolongs the thoughts of the spectator beyond the representation: the narrative significance, the moral, the meaning. That is why Flaubert’s technique, as he described it, abandoned the use of analysis or commentary: he avoided even the appearance of “subject.”

A still life with fruit has no subject, but if the fruit spills in profusion from something shaped like a horn, then the allegorical subject of the Horn of Plenty begins to emerge. A landscape in which the artist confines himself to a rendering of the visual scene has no subject, but a landscape with a small child being suckled by a goat has the subject of The Childhood of Jupiter, no matter how tiny the figures. Degas remarked about one of his pictures of a Woman in a Bathtub, “A hundred years ago we would have called that Suzanne au Bain.” (And, of course, he would have had to add at least a minimal suggestion of two peering elders.)

How many of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century landscapes, still lifes, and genre scenes of low- and middleclass interiors are paintings without subjects and how many have extrapictorial meanings, allegorical, historical, moral, anecdotal, or otherwise is still a matter of debate. How many of those paintings which clearly have subjects were executed for the sake of the representation alone, and with very little interest in the subject on the part of the artist or his public, is an even more difficult question. There are, for example, residues of traditional allegorical subjects in the paintings of Chardin, as recent work has shown, but these residues are not very important for an understanding of his work.

The ideal of art without a subject, the belief that painting must sustain itself through its own intrinsic devices, is explicitly broached first, as far as we know, by Romantic theorists like Tieck at the tail end of the eighteenth century, following the French Revolution. The way had been prepared for this ideal, but it remained a controversial issue. Much of the history of nineteenth-century painting can be written in terms of it, as it touches on the other important issues, like the hierarchy of genres (history painting, after all, is based on subject), and the controversy over the relation of a sketch to a finished painting (as many sketches reflect purely visual qualities more directly and more immediately than large-scale finished works).

When the Constable landscapes which made such an impression on the advanced French painters were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, the critics complained that they had no subject, but were like conversation or music—Constable was rather proud of this reproach, which he took as a compliment. By the 1830s, it would no longer be a reproach for the most intelligent critics: to create a picture without a subject was beginning to be understood as a high art. Gustave Planche in 1834 praised Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers specifically for this reason.

This painting, in my opinion, is the most brilliant triumph that M. Delacroix has ever achieved. To interest by the art of painting itself reduced to its own resources, without the aid of a subject that can be interpreted in a thousand ways and too often distracts the eye of superficial viewers who, occupied only with their own thoughts, value a painting according to their dreams and conjectures, this is a difficult undertaking, and M. Delacroix has succeeded in it…. [In Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People of 1831] imagination conspicuously aided the brush. In Women of Algiers, there is nothing of this sort; it is painting and nothing more….8

With the Realist painters, the disappearance of subject became crucial: it guaranteed the truth of the picture, and the objectivity of the representation. “Subject” is always a manipulation of reality, an arrangement of the material that precedes the act of representing, just as the classical poses (on which history painting generally depended to convey the subject) demanded an arrangement of the human form that preceded even the conception of the picture. The important change made by Realism from Romanticism was—at least ostensibly—an acceptance of life as it was: the goal was to transcribe reality without previous alteration. With a few important exceptions, not only does the disappearance of subject characterize the work of avant-garde Realism, but even in allegorical works like Courbet’s L’Atelier there is evident a diminishing of subject by comparison with earlier allegorical painting.


The three enemies of Realist painting were the sentimental, the picturesque, and the anecdotal. Into one of these three pitfalls most of the painters of the Cleveland Museum’s “The Realist Tradition” tumble almost constantly. Among the artists of avant-garde Realism, however, only Millet and Renoir at their weakest drop into the sentimental; and only Manet, most often ironically, and perhaps Renoir, indulge in the picturesque. The anecdotal in which “subject” attempts to reassert its rights, what Pissarro called la romance, appears in avant-garde Realism only with exceptional rarity. Not even Daumier, for whom subject appears to retain its importance, employed the anecdotal technique very often.

The anecdotal is the projection in time of the single moment seized by the picture, leading away from the immediate visual sensation into both past and future: the visual is therefore only the initial impulse, and the goal lies outside the work itself. The anecdotal technique originated in Flanders and Holland, but it reached its most elaborate form in Victorian genre painting, like that of William Mulready and William Holman Hunt. Into a scene of daily life, the painter drops little details which appear, at first glance, to irrelevant to the main action. They are clues to the past and future which allow one to reconstruct how the scene came about, and to predict how it will continue. In this way, the painting becomes a point of departure for the spectator’s fantasy, absorbing him in an imaginary world.

The insignificance and the triviality of the clues are essential to the anecdotal technique. Françcois Bonvin’s Young Savoyard, for example, represents the boy counting his few pennies. He has an apple, a piece of bread and an extra pair of shoes: these props are carefully placed to help us imagine, even create, the boy’s life. (The catalogue entry remarks about the shoes that they are “ill-fitting, but a luxury nonetheless.”) The anecdotal picture not only emphasizes the subject, but—by forcing one to speculate and even invent part of the subject—draws the mind away from the picture itself into reverie and reflection. It evades the effect of immediate real presence preferred by the Realist painter.

There is nothing anecdotal about Courbet’s Burial at Ornans: we do not know who is being buried and we would not be one hairbreadth closer to understanding the picture if that question could be answered. We do not begin to wonder about the lives of the members of the procession. The spectator is entirely occupied by the aggressive presence of the personages—paralleled, mediated, and guaranteed by the aggressive presence of the paint. A genre scene is raised, by this aggression and by the life size of the figures, to the dignity of a history painting. The infinitely repeatable scene of a village funeral is given the singularity of an important historical event. This is what shocked Courbet’s critics, and justly so. Even the most trivial aspects of a burial are monumentalized here without sentimentality. The “disappearance of subject” in Realist art did not prevent the artist from making controversial statements about society, religion, and death.

Along with the anecdotal, Courbet rejected the dramatic. He was not the only painter around 1850 to attempt to make a monumental work out of the material of daily life. Another example among several is Jean-Pierre Alexandre Antigna’s The Fire, an important canvas in the Salon of 1850/51, which was shown in the exhibition “The Realist Tradition”: a family of poor workers is surprised by a fire in their humble garret. Antigna’s procedure is essentially the same as Géricault’s in The Raft of the “Medusa”. He chooses a dramatic moment, an extreme situation, arranges his figures into a traditional pyramidal composition, and varies the poses according to precepts both formal and expressive that go back to Jacques-Louis David and the classical tradition. The circumstances may be ordinary, but the situation is idealized by rhetoric and the actors magnified by drama.9

Courbet, on the other hand, acts as if this classical tradition did not exist. The figures of the Burial are lined up, and give the initial impression of an absence of composition. Size seems to be enough to convey importance. Courbet can do without the classical formulas of composition because he has other tricks up his sleeve: popular imagery, the example of the recently discovered brothers Le Nain, and his own extraordinarily subtle sense of rhythm. He affirms the importance of ordinary life without raising it out of the ordinary, without insisting on the subject. (Of course, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, he cheats a little bit.)

The picturesque, like the anecdotal, focuses directly on “subject”: it emphasizes aspects of life that are exotic, quaint, outlandish. As the word itself implies, the picturesque claims that some aspects of reality make better pictures than others, or at least that ordinary life must be transformed, heightened, romantically transfigured in order to be made worthy of art. The picturesque dresses life; it, too, manipulates reality before the act of painting begins. It overlaps with the sentimental, which bathes the scene painted with conventional, second-hand feeling. The Studio Corner of Tassaert shows both tendencies with great charm: the painter, huddling up for warmth as he peels potatoes on the floor of his studio, is so young, so charming, so poor. This may be a realistic painting (after all, some young painters were handsome, and many were poor and often cold), but it is not Realist: for Realism—in spite of its pretensions to accept all of life—was as rigorous in its exclusions as academic classicism.10

Sentimentality is hard to define, since the falseness of its emotion depends so much on the perception of the spectator. The critical history of Millet is a spectacular demonstration of this: pictures like the Gleaners, which originally seemed to be brutal and deeply stirring presentations of reality, were later considered sentimental and conventional. The still infamous Angelus is hard to redeem from this charge. It is impossible to avoid the exterior associations not only evoked by the picture, but actually built into it: the painting itself stands in awe of the dignity of the peasant couple’s lives, displays their merits and their sufferings, shows compassion for their piety. Yet Millet never sought out and exploited sentimentality the way a painter like Bastien-Lepage did in The London Bootblack, seen in the Cleveland show. Where so much cosmetic is applied to the misery, the spectator immediately understands that not only the picture but the scene itself is nothing but a picturesque image. Bastien-Lepage’s engaging apple-cheeked cockney boy, so picturesquely attired, makes Murillo’s charming beggar children look positively grubby by comparison.


How the disappearance of subject worked for nineteenth-century Realism can be seen if we compare two pictures close together in time, both related to the fall of the brief revolutionary government of the Commune in Paris of 1871, and both using the technique of allegory, where subject cannot be completely eliminated. “The Realist Tradition” showed Meissonier’s The Ruins of the Tuileries (see page 29). In the foreground is portrayed, in minute realistic detail, the ruins of the Tuileries palace, which had witnessed the pomp and circumstance of the Second Empire. At the center of the painting, framed by a gap in the ruins, we see, sharply contrasted against the blue sky, the distant silhouette of the top of the Arch of Triumph of the Carroussel with its bronze group of the Triumph of Peace. To avoid any doubt about his intention or his fidelity to the Empire that made his fortune, Meissonier placed a Latin inscription on the front of the picture, which tells us that “the glory of our forebears survives the flames.”

The meaning of the work depends on conventional and classical devices: centrality and frontality confer nobility and importance, distance in space stands for distance in time; the whole concetto (or conceit, in the old Baroque sense) depends on our extrapictorial knowledge of the things represented. Without these features, Meissonier’s canvas would be simply a documentary and picturesque view, like the painting of the same motif (also in the Cleveland show) by Isidore Pils. Meissonier’s striking image has to be deciphered, like the traditional emblematic conceits of seventeenth-century poets.

There is also a painting by Courbet dated 1871; it, too, has a Latin inscription: 71 G. Courbet in vinculis faciebat (“71 G. Courbet made this in prison”). The picture, one of Courbet’s late masterpieces, is of a large hooked trout fighting for life. The work eludes classification of the traditional genres: it is not a still life, although that is the only kind of painting where one would expect a trout (and Courbet painted several such still lifes). Although seen against a natural background of water and earth, the fish almost fills the entire canvas. It is, at the very least, life-size, the kind of heroic catch that anglers brag about. Dramatically presented, carefully and brilliantly executed, the picture can be viewed close up only with some discomfort. The projection of human feelings and situations into the animal realm has a venerable tradition, but Courbet manages to give an impression of complete immediacy.

The intention of allegory is asserted by the Latin inscription—and, in fact, by the date as well, since most experts believe the picture was not painted in 1871 when Courbet was imprisoned for his activities during the Commune, but later, in 1872 or 1873, when he had fled to Switzerland. Not that Courbet was above boasting that he could paint such a picture in his prison cell, but it was equally like him to compare himself to such a grandly beautiful trout—a selfportrait, in fact, rather than a still life. The Latin inscription is both a declaration of an elevated meaning and an ironic reference to such high-toned inscriptions in other paintings. This discussion, however, is largely irrelevant, as the feeling of being a hooked fish is conveyed so directly by the painting itself.

For this reason, one might say that Linda Nochlin was right to conclude that this is just a painting of a fish. The “subject” tends to disappear: the picture is what it seems to be. That is almost equally true of The Artist’s Studio, which Courbet himself called “A Real Allegory.” In Realist allegory, visual reality is accepted, and the significance is not at one remove from it. Meissonier’s Ruins of the Tuileries is the graphic transcription of an idea; Courbet’s Trout, the visual embodiment of an experience.

The disappearance of subject in Realist painting clearly did not mean a lack of concern for what was painted, but a refusal to falsify it, a renunciation not only of the idealizing rhetorical gestures and classical compositional grouping, but also of conventional sentiment or exoticism. It meant an acceptance of visual reality, of that which was given immediately to the eye—and a faith that this reality could be transcribed without falsification into art and still speak for itself. Few of the works in the Cleveland exhibition display this faith (with the exception of François Bonhomme’s extraordinary stark pictures of factory interiors and mining landscapes, which, in contrast with most Realist art, were painted as a celebration of capitalist industry). One can learn more about Realism in nineteenth-century art from Flaubert’s correspondence than from “The Realist Tradition.”

The efforts to rehabilitate the minor Realists and the more “official” figures of nineteenth-century art are motivated, at least to some extent, by a reasonable and scholarly desire to avoid seeing the past century entirely through modern eyes. The supremacy of Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists—the “modern tradition” in short—is at least partially due to their importance for twentieth-century painting. They are our ancestors, or so we like to think. A more objective approach would surely acknowledge the contacts between the avant-garde artist and those who were able to obtain government patronage.

Only Pissarro was totally intractable and uncompromising, but Manet never quite gave up the hope of official recognition, and Degas, who spurned it, had many friends outside the avant-garde—especially among fashionable painters like De Nittis and Gervex, who made modernism acceptable. It is true that the original Impressionist exhibition of 1874 in Nadar’s studio must have looked very different from our present idea of Impressionism; many of the artists who participated in this show might not today be considered as belonging to the “modern tradition.” The ambiguous status of Thomas Couture in the 1840s and 1850s and of Puvis de Chavannes after that is an indication of the complexities of the artistic situation.

Paradoxically, however, in trying so hard to avoid imposing a twentieth-century viewpoint on nineteenth-century art, the organizers of the exhibition called “The Realist Tradition” have obscured some of the most essential and dynamic elements of mid-century Realism. The “disappearance of subject,” for example, is not a twentieth-century notion read anachronistically into earlier work. Degas, looking at Renaissance pictures of historical and religious themes, remarked, “We have let all those idiots take these beautiful subjects away from us.” The “disappearance of subject” was won with difficulty, and not, as we see, without nostalgia for the past. But the line that Degas drew between those who abandoned “subjects” and the “idiots” who continued to paint them was firmly drawn, and it separates the modern tradition from the academic work that neo-conservative historians hope to resurrect.

Seen by nineteenth-century eyes, in fact, Realism was above all an avant-grade movement. Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser are hardly representations of contemporary life, and yet they were oddly labeled “Realist” at the time. That arch-reactionary music critic Fétis even called Wagner “the Courbet of music.” Because of its avant-grade character Wagner’s work was assimilated to Realism and championed by the Realists; they were the ones who organized a clique to applaud Tannhäuser when the members of the Jockey Club conspired to hoot it down.

One final quotation from Flaubert sums up, perhaps better than anything else, the extraordinary achievement of the mid-century avant-garde. At the end of a diatribe against French culture in which he complains that for two centuries life and art have been impoverished, sterilized, and constricted in France, he adds:

But I believe there is something above all this, to wit: the ironic acceptance of existence and its plastic and complete recasting through art.11

This needs no further comment, except that the quality of irony of many of the avant-garde Realists—of Daumier, Courbet, Manet, Degas, and Seurat—sets them off by a gulf from other painters of contemporary life. This irony has received neither the recognition nor the study it deserves.

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

This Issue

March 4, 1982