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The avant-garde: Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Courbet, Manet, Degas, and van Gogh used subjective experience to invent new ways to see.
All content in “The avant-garde: Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism”

Art and the French state

Despite the brief dismantling of the Royal Academy during the French Revolution, art remained an extension of the power of the French State which regularly purchased art that it favored (often art that supported its political objectives). Through the Royal Academy (originally been founded by Louis XIV), the state extended its reach to the official exhibitions (salons) and to matters of style and subject matter through the École des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts). These were not just the official institutions of art, they were, in essence, the only institutions available for living artists to train and to make their work known. This tutorial looks at a crucial moment for painting, on the eve of the Revolution of 1848. We also examine one of the great State commissions of the Second Empire, the Opera House.

Realism

In the mid-Nineteenth Century, great art was still defined as art that took it’s subjects from religion, history or mythology and its style from ancient Greece and Rome. Hardly what we would consider modern and appropriate for an industrial, commercial, urban culture! Courbet agreed, and so did his friend, the writer Charles Baudelaire who called for an art that would depict, as he called it, the beauty of modern life. Courbet painted the reality of life in the countryside—not the idealized peasants that were the usual fare at the exhibits in Paris. The revolution of 1848, in which both the working class and the middle class played a significant role, set the stage for Realism. Later, Manet and then Degas painted modern life in Paris, a city which was undergoing rapid modernization in the period after 1855 (the Second Empire).

Impressionism

Impressionism is both a style, and the name of a group of artists who did something radical—in 1874 they banded together and held their own independent exhibition. These artists described, in fleeting sensations of light, the new leisure pastimes of the city and its suburbs It’s hard to imagine, but at this time in France, the only place of consequence that artists could exhibit their work was the official government-sanctioned exhibitions (called salons), held just once a year, and controlled by a conservative jury. The Impressionists painted modern Paris and landscapes with a loose open brushstrokes, bright colors, and unconventional compositions—none of which was appreciated by the salon jury!

Post-Impressionism

The work of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat together constitute Post-Impressionism and yet their work is so varied and unrelated, we might never otherwise think of these four artists as a group. Certainly van Gogh and Gauguin were friends and they briefly painted together, but each of these artists was concerned with solving particular issues that had to do with their own individual sensibility. Ironically, if anything ties these artists together it is this focus on subjectivity. This tutorial explores the sketchy multiperspectival views of Cézanne, Seurat’s systematized critiques of upper middle-class Paris, Gauguin’s fascination with the primitive and exotic, and van Gogh’s unerring ability to convey deeply human experiences.

Sculpture

Sculpture, like painting, had its avant-garde though because marble statues of the human body were seen in direct comparison to the classical tradition, experimentation was often seen as even more radical.