Art: Realism

Realism: 1848-1860

what was going on?

Realism flourished during a time of turmoil in Europe. Revolutions were occurring throughout Italy, Germany, and Austria. In France, the Revolution of 1830 had placed a weak constitutional monarchy in charge, led by Louis-Phillipe, who despoted himself and was replaced by Napoleon III who would only wreak more chaos in Europe by igniting the Franco-Prussian War.

Auguste Comte broke intellectual ground with his work developing positivism, which heavily influenced Realist art. Positivism essentially states that we can only prove things we know through our senses and scientific theory. Other great thinkers such as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin had similar effects on social reformers and artists alike. The subject of Realist artworks are typically peasants going about their daily lives represented in a sincere, honest manner. Figures tend to blend with the landscapes behind them since they’re all so brown and ochre.

Gustave Courbet is a historical painter who is attributed with creating the Realist style of painting. His paintings were also always rejected by the state-run Salon in Paris. He is quoted with saying, “Show me an angel, and I’ll paint one.” The point is, you can’t show him an angel, so he can’t paint one, and it is silly to even try. Courbet is the kind of guy who only believes what he sees, or hears, or smells, or senses in general.

Burial at Ornans is a 1849 painting that shows a drab funeral going on, which sounds a bit boring and macabre to a modern audience. To audiences at the time of its creation, this monumental canvas was a shocking departure from traditional subject matter– in fact, its mere size is radical in that large paintings were historically reserved for scenes of glory and yet this one depicts the everyday. The crowd seems distracted (I mean, look at the dog in the bottom right) and everyone is painted in an unflattering manner. The models were actually offended when the final product was revealed, though the painting’s theme of death is transcendent.

Gustav Courbet, Burial at Ornans, French Realism


Rosa Bonheur, Plowing the Nivernais, 1849, French Realism
Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, French Realism
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, French Realism

Mayan Yaxchilán Lintels

Yaxchilán was a major urban center of the Mayan Empire during its Classical Period, between 250 and 900 CE. Under the rule of Emperor Bird Jaguar IV, public buildings adorned with relief sculptures began to spring up around the settlement. Pieces of these sculptures are known as lintels, and art historians have been studying them for years in order to gain insight into the mysterious and often brutal Mayan culture.

Yaxchilán lintel 16 (commissioned by Bird Jaguar IV for Structure 21), after 752 C.E., Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 76.2 x 75.7 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum.

Known simply as Lintel 16, this shallow relief sculpture depicts Emperor Bird Jaguar IV standing over a submissive captive. The non-naturalistic, idealized king figure stands with dignity, his arm and sword directly above the cowering prisoner who looks up fearfully. Note how intricately patterned Bird Jaguar’s garbs are in  comparison to the other figure. The Mayan military’s strategy relied heavily on taking prisoners, for these were the individuals used in ritual sacrifice.

Yaxchilán lintel 24, structure 23, after 709 C.E., Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 109 x 78 x 6 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum

Lintel 24 also depicts a violent Mayan ritual known as bloodletting. One of the most famous pieces of Mayan artwork, it shows Lady Xoc pulling a string covered in sharp obsidian shards through her tongue, an accession ritual. A detailed image is displayed at the top of this post. The woman wears a huipil which is woven intricately, indicating her status. She performs the ritual, lines of blood seen spilling from her mouth, over sheets of a paper-like material meant to catch the blood, symbolic of the Mayan gods’ bloodletting to create the human race in their creation story. The text which is inscribed on the lintel reads, “burning spear,” probably referring to the Emperor and his spear which stands above her. It also reads the date at which the art was created, October 24, 709 CE– the Mayans had a complex understanding of astronomy and therefore had a surprisingly accurate calendar.

Bloodletting was a Mayan ritual which emerged as early as 400 BCE, and occurred at all kinds of public rituals. Pulling a string through one’s tongue was one way to do it; other ways included incising oneself with lancets made from obsidian, bones, or even stingray spines.