How the Art of Painting liberated itself from Photorealism - Part Three

Note: this is the third part of a blog post I published 15 days ago, you can find the second part here ...

A League Of Their Own: The Academics

One of the reasons why the Realists, the Romanticists or the Symbolists were called an 'art movement' was that there has always been an unmovable factor in the background. The Academic School Of Painting has been established in the 16th century and still kept going strong when the art movements appeared on the playground.
Academic Art came out of the Renaissance and therefore was firmly rooted in the interpretation of the ideals of Antiquity. It made its way from Italy over France to the rest of Europe. The Academic style of painting itself was influenced by two schools of thought: one was Neoclassicism and the other Historicism. Neoclassicism drew its inspiration from the art of the classical antiquity, mostly in the form of the many statues that survived from that era. This is one of the reasons why life drawing became so important in the academies. Historicism seeks to recreate or imitate the look and feel of the works of historic artisans from different eras of history.

From top to bottom: Thomas Couture's Romans During The Decadence from 1847 imagines the classical times as one big banquet of half-naked feasting both for the stomach and for the eye. Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream from 1840 mashes up Egyptian, Roman and Northern-European Gothic architecture into one big bowl. In this photograph from the late 19th century students from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris are shown in their life-drawing class.

For the untrained eye and the in-adept Academic Art seems to have a lot of similarities to the other art movements of Realism, Romanticism and Symbolism. And yes, you are right, this holds especially true now two centuries later. But we have to imagine that there were clear ideological differences between all of those art movements and stiff Academic Art. That is not to say that each did not take inspiration from the other or that an Academic painter may have not switched stances in his lifespan, but when the audience and artists discussed works and their differences in the Salons and Galleries, there were fierce battles between the various camps. 

Thomas Couture's The Realist from 1865 ridicules the realist painter: he can be seen sitting on the head of a classical statue while painting a boar's head. Other attributes like the pipe and the hat mark him as a Bohemian, while the bottle in the foreground shows that he also is a drinker. Academics regarded the realist painter as someone who neglects the beauty of an idealized antiquity and has turned towards the ugly.

A League Of His Own: William Adolphe Bougeureau

William Bougeureau is one of the most prolific of the academic painters. His style of painting perfectly embodies everything academic art stands for: allegoric subjects, perfect technique and execution, a high level of illusionistic realism. 
His technique of painting has led many to believe that he used photos as a reference. If this is true or not has not yet been conclusively proven, though his photo-realism is striking and he serves as good example in this blog post series for painters who were promoting the look and feel of photography.

From left to right: Dante et Virgile en enfer from 1850, Au bord du Ruisseau from (1875) and The Wave from 1896. Bougeureau's three paintings almost span a career of 50 years and consecutively show a high mastery of craftsmanship in creating photo-realism without the observer being able to spot as much as a brush stroke. Many people claim that one could see the edges of a table in the latter picture, indicating the evidence of the use of photo reference. It his clear however, that Bougeureau's paintings far exceed the capacities of photography of its time in terms of sharpness, colorfulness, expression and the level of detail.

Along Come The Impressionists 

It is hard to single out one factor that lead to the development of Impressionism. Whether it was the relentless stubbornness of the Academics and the other art movements in their disputes, the over-saturation of the audience with nude allegoric women in classical poses, the kitchyness of the ever-repeated imagery of antique fantasies or the finicky scrupulous technique of painting in photo-realism. There came a time when young painters had enough of it and were seeking a more direct, less obstructed approach to painting. Along came the Impressionists.

The term itself was coined by a critic who was trying to demean the painting Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet from 1872 which was shown in the exhibition of a young troupe of painters who grouped themselves around Camille Pissaro in and about Paris. The audience started to use the word Impressionist as a derogation for painters who refused to hide their brushstrokes and clearly formulate a painting until its tiniest detail. This new art movement quickly adopted term of abuse and turned it around in their favor.

The works of the Impressionists are marked by their realist subjects and their attention towards the use of light, colors and brushstrokes in a fluid way so to capture movement and moods. Instead if spending their time in the studio, thinking up new fantasies about the past, Impressionists started to go outdoors and do Plein Air Painting and let themselves be inspired by nature and society itself. Their works display a naturalness and are capable of capturing the humanity of the models, without abiding to the strict rules of photo-realism.

From left to right: Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette from 1876, Berte Morisot's The Cradle from 1872, Edgar Degas' At the Races from around 1877–1880. All of these images lack the perfectionist finish often seen in the works of the Academics, who were eagerly trying to hide every trace of a brushstroke, but they preserve a vividness and fluidity and leave a lasting 'Impression' on the viewer. Speaking in philosophical terms, the Impressionists come close to reality not by mimicking it, but by distilling its essentials and by careful approximation with the tools of the painter.

In the fourth part of this installment, we will take a look at how Impressionism banged open the doors for more artistic experiments and widened the art term during its time. Please stay tuned and leave a comment, I would like to know what you think about this! 

How the Art of Painting liberated itself from Photorealism - Part Two

Note: this is the second part of a blog post I published a month ago, you can find it here ...

The Realist Movement

The artistic movement of Realism began in France in the 1850s. It was a counter-movement to Romanticism that was at its peak from around 1800 - 1850. While Romanticism was characterized by exaggerated emotions and fantastical subjects, often glorifying nature and creating a dreamed-of version of the past, the aim of the Realists was to portray real life and contemporary people as truthful and accurate as they could. Realism first and foremost referred to certain themes and how they are depicted and not so much to the technique that was used to create the painting. Romanticists may also painted 'realistically' in that they tried to create the illusion of their imagined settings being real (see the first part of this article and the problem of realism), but the content of their images had no footing in reality.


From left to right: Jean-François Millet's painting The Gleaners from 1857 depicts three peasant women gleaning a field of stray stalks of wheat after the harvest, while Honoré Daumier's The Third-Class Carriage from around 1862 shows the traveling conditions of a carriage for the lower classes. Both pictures depict common people and their conditions of working and living.

From left to right: Adolph Menzel's Eisenwalzwerk from around 1875 takes a look into the working conditions of an early-industrial age factory. Max Liebermann's Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage from around 1882 gives a glimpse into the daily routine of some of the weakest members of society. In fact Liebermann's picture caused so much uproar in Prussian society because of him showing such common people in a painting, that from there on he was known as 'The Painter Of The Ugly'. One might be surprised about this, when you look into the early Flemish and Dutch art and their representation of the peasant class. It seems that between the 17th - 19th century sensitivities had dramatically shifted towards the idealized.

From left to right two examples of Realim's predecessor the Romanticist movement: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes from around 1802 and Thomas Cole's Childhood from 1842. The former glorifies, idealizes and romanticizes the death of war heroes, the latter shows an idealized landscape to symbolize the innocent and pure past of childhood - too much false emotions for the Realists.

The Illusionistic Representation: Mimesis

We have seen that there are two ways to look at realism in painting. One is taking the subjects and themes of a painting and another is the technique, the way the elements in the painting are crafted and represented. Although the romanticists painted their subjects 'realistically', meaning they were painted in such a way to evoke the feeling within the viewer that what he sees could be real or even plausible, their themes were not. As we have seen with Margritte's famous pipe, there is no 'real' in a visual representation of any kind. There is only the illusion of real. Therefore the style of the technique of painting as-if-real, could be called an Illusionistic Representation or Mimesis, from the ancient Greek word for imitation, because it tries to imitate the properties of reality.
When Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston published their book on animation in 1981, they called it The Illusion Of Life, because their goal was to create animation that made the audience feel as if the fictional characters truly were alive. Similarly a painter who draws in a realistic style wants the viewer to feel like he is seeing something that is or could exist.

Back To The Future: Symbolism

Before the Realist movement, there was no clear distinction between art that represents or art that stylizes. Art always had to represent, whether it was something fictional or based on authenticity. Once the distinction between the ideal and the evident was created though, camps began to form around both. After the Realist movement came Symbolism which was a sort of counter-movement in that it picked up elements of Romanticism and merged it with some of the ideas of Realism. It also questioned Realism by asking if what is perceived and experienced is all there is or if there is truth and meaning beneath what can be seen. By purposefully falling back to the fantastical and using elements of mythology and dreams, the Symbolists ultimately paved the way for breaking up the dictate of the Illusionistic Representation and summoned new forms of expression into life.

From left to right: Pierre Puvis de Chavanne's Poor Fisherman from the 1880s includes a hidden meaning besides his subject, while Eugen Bracht's Shore Of Oblivion from 1889 (notice the skulls littered on the beach) and Arnold Böcklin's Island Of Death from 1883 take landscape and give it a mood that appeals to a feeling that there is more to what we are seeing. Odilon Redon's Cyclops  from 1898 is a messenger of things to come, when expression and subjective experience becomes more important than idealized visions.

In the upcoming part I will look deeper into the art movements of the second half of the 19th century that took their lessons from Romanticism, Realism and Symbolism and rejected all of them to create something revolutionary new and modern. Stay tuned and please leave a comment, I would like to know your thoughts on this!