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Realism, Manet, and Proto-Impressionism


The Realists, led by Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, declared their independence from the dominant French art school called the Academy. Thumbing their noses at the establishment, they perplexed the critics with shocking (for the age) art.

Complete Video Script

[39, Orsay Gallery, Paris] In the late-19th century, the art world was dominated by the prestigious French art school called the "Academy." But some independent painters struggled to be free from its stuffy dictates. The result: a period with both conservative and revolutionary art at the same time.

[40, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Cabanel, Orsay Museum, Paris] To earn a living, conforming artists painted gauzy market-pleasing scenes like this Venus. Idealized beauty sold well. It was made-to-order for well-off customers who were afraid of change.

[41, A Bar at the Folies-Bergére, Manet; Whistler's Mother, Whistler; The Spinner, Millet; The Gleaners, 1867, Millet; all Orsay Museum, Paris] But outside the Academy, a new breed of artists was painting the real life of real people. Called the "Realists," they captured honest snapshots of everyday life: from no-nonsense portraits, to peasant spinners of yarn, to gleaners bending low to scavenge what they can from an already harvested field.

[42, The Painter's Studio, 1855, Courbet, Orsay Museum, Paris] This unvarnished Realism proved shocking. Instead of painting more dreamy goddesses, Gustave Courbet gave a gritty behind-the-scenes look at his studio. His model — not a goddess but a real woman — takes a break to watch Courbet at work. And the little boy admires the brave artist for bucking conformity.

[43, Edouard Manet, 1832–1883; Olympia, 1863, Manet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Edouard Manet took Realism to another level. He posed this prostitute like a classic goddess, but instead of golden skin and a radiant face, he made her shockingly ordinary. Her hand is a clamp. Her stare…calculating. Ignoring the flowers her servant brings from her last customer, she looks out as if to say, "Next."

[44, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Manet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Manet innovated — he placed this woman alongside men in business suits — brazenly accentuating her nudity. Rather than the polished brushwork of the Academy, he experimented with thick paint, sharp outlines, and odd perspective — further perplexing the critics.

[45, A Studio at Les Batignolles, 1870, Fantin-Latour, Orsay Gallery, Paris] When Manet had his work rejected in 1867, he put on his own show — thumbing his nose at the establishment. Manet's boldness attracted a younger generation of artists. They admired him for his everyday subjects, experimental techniques, and his artistic integrity. Soon, they'd strike out on their own. Let the Impressionist revolution begin.