The Poor Among Us: The Realist School of Art

Romanticism was the dominant school of art in 19th century Europe. The romantic art movement emphasized the inner world of the artist: his emotions in particular, set against the powerful forces of nature. The Romantic artist was represented by the tortured genius communing with sublime nature and being awed by it. William Turner’s paintings depicting boats rocked by swirling waves in stormy weather exemplify this genre of artistic works, as does John Constable’s dreamy, pastoral scenes of the English countryside. By the late 19th century, however, another school of painting – Realism –emerged on the scene. It’s rise was fired less by the inner world of the artist than the desire to depict as realistically as possible, the outer world, warts and all.

Realism was part of a wider movement in the arts that began in France in the wake of the February Revolution of 1848. Rapid population growth, successive failed crops and rapid industrialization had caused deprivation and hardship for the poor in both rural and urban areas. This led to considerable unrest and culminated in the revolution. Realist painters responded to the social upheavals of the time by eschewing Romanticism, choosing to depict ordinary people and events in a naturalistic, almost photographic style based on close observation.

The Realist movement was not confined to France. By the mid 19th century, political revolts had broken out in Austria, Germany, and Italy as a result of increasing social awareness and a belief in democracy and individual freedom. Socialism, as propagated by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was centred on the ideal of social equality and a fair distribution of wealth (times have not changed!) and this ideology became the motivation for much Realist art. Featured below are two exemplars of the Realist school of painting that evoke this ideal.

Nikolai Kasatkin, “Poor People Gathering Coal at an Exhausted Mine”, 1894. Oil on canvas. 80 x 107 cm. The Russian Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 1870, a group of Russian Realist painters formed the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions in Russia, a collective that staged shows in an effort to bring art to the people. Group members became known as “the wanderers”, or “the itinerants.” Among them was Nikolai Kasatkin (1859-1930) who is known for his genre paintings of workers and miners in the Donets Basin in the Ukraine as depicted in this work. The standing women looking directly at the viewer seems to call attention to the hopeless existence and daily struggles of the poor in 19th century Russia.

Jean-Francois Millet, “The Gleaners”, 1857. Oil on canvas. 83.5 x 110 cm. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814 – 1875) was a foremost painter of the Realist School. “The Gleaners” is one of his best-known works. Millet painted a decidedly unglamorous scene of peasant women doing the back-breaking work of gathering crops. The painting is large, measuring 100 cm by 83.5 cm, a size previously reserved for classical or historical works. This was deliberate. By using such a large canvas, Millet brought his subjects to the fore, calling our attention to the plight of poor. Characteristic of Miller, the three peasant women are imbued with a strong sense of dignity. Two of them are gathering the remains of the crops, while a third binds together her feeble sheath. The women’s fixed expressions and thick, heavy features accentuate the laborious nature of their work. They are set against a harmonious background scene of farmers reaping an abundant harvest in a golden corn field. This, also was deliberate, juxtaposition of the light and shade emphasizing the class divide.

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