Realist painters also rejected the romantic emphasis on imagination. Instead, they focused on ordinary subjects, especially working-class men and women. “I cannot paint an angel,” said the French realist Gustave Courbet (koor BAY), “because I have never seen one.” Instead, he painted works such as The Stone Breakers, which shows two rough laborers on a country road. Later in the century, The Gross Clinic, by American painter Thomas Eakins, shocked viewers with its realistic depiction of an autopsy conducted in a medical classroom.
In 1839, Louis Daguerre perfected an effective method of photography. His camera changed both art and society.
How did realism differ from romanticism?
By the 1840s, a new art form, photography, was emerging. Louis Daguerre (dah GEHR) in France and William Fox Talbot in England had improved on earlier technologies to produce successful photographs. At first, many photos were stiff, posed portraits of middle-class families or prominent people. Other photographs reflected the romantics' fascination with faraway places.
In time, photographers used the camera to present the grim realities of life. During the American Civil War, Mathew B. Brady preserved a vivid, realistic record of the corpse-strewn battlefields. Other photographers showed the harsh conditions in industrial factories or slums.
Photography posed a challenge to painters. Why try for realism, some artists asked, when a camera could do the same thing better?
By the 1870s, a group of painters took art in a new direction, seeking to capture the first fleeting impression made by a scene or object on the viewer's eye. The new movement, known as impressionism, took root in Paris, capital of the Western art world.
Since the Renaissance, painters had carefully finished their paintings so that no brush strokes showed. But impressionists like Claude Monet (moh NAY) and Edgar Degas (day GAH) brushed strokes of color side by side without any blending. According to new scientific studies of optics, the human eye would mix these patches of color.
Realist painters focused on everyday subjects. The Gross Clinic, shown here, shows medical students dissecting a body. It is considered Eakins's masterpiece.
Why were viewers so shocked by this painting? Why might Eakins have chosen this subject?
By concentrating on visual impressions rather than realism, artists achieved a fresh view of familiar subjects.