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The Banjo Lesson artwork by Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Known Names Social Realism
Influencers Gustave Courbet

(Top Image: “Angelus” by Jean-François Millet)

Born of tumultuous times, Realism turned away from idyllic views and Romanticism. Instead, Realists depicted the working class in candid portrayals. By raising humble people with art, Realists denied the upper class its hold on the art world.


Realism was a French art movement that was introduced after the Revolution of 1848 and grew during the time of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. Artists of the Realist movement sought to project objectivity and truth about contemporary life through their works. During a time when the citizens of France were clamoring for democratic reform, Realists were tearing away from the notions of Romanticism and portraying down-to-earth subjects, concentrating on themes involving the working class. With social upheaval prevailing, artists found personal niches within the realm of Realism. Jean-Francois Millet painted sincere, deeply humanizing portraits of peasants at work, as seen in The Gleaners, Sheep Shearing beneath a Tree, and Woman with a Rake. Similarly, Gustave Courbet painted peasants at work and in other humble situations, as portrayed in A Burial at Ornans, The Stonebreakers, and The Bathers. Unlike Millet’s work, Courbet’s pieces were more general and seemed more like an editorial, giving the men distinctly different styles. As both artists’ paintings flaunted conventional standards by uplifting the lower class in high art, their work was deemed politically subversive when presented at the Salon in Paris. Painter Edouard Manet enjoyed success as a Realist whose works displayed social life. He painted a series of cafe scenes, including At the Cafe, Corner of a Cafe Concert, and The Cafe Concert. He captured people drinking in bars with The Absinthe Drinker and The Beer Drinkers. Manet’s unique brushwork and technique made him a modern artist, and he eventually turned his attention toward Impressionism. Honore Daumier used his art to point out to the separation between the classes of railway passengers. His painting The First-Class Carriage features four seemingly self-important, well-to-do people in fine clothes seated together but each afforded some personal space. The Second-Class Carriage is done in charcoal and ink. It conveys four people trying to keep to themselves. They are bundled in coats as if cold, and they are clearly ready for their journey to end. The Third-Class Carriage is a portrait of many people crammed in a car. They appear to be disheveled and haggard. Mainly women occupy the train, indicating they are without husbands, and they all seem preoccupied. Most strikingly, Daumier portrays the figures in all these works with the same intricate detail, as if to prove they are all equally important. The Ashcan School and the Barbizon School were offshoots of the Realist movement. The latter was a group of painters of French landscape art dedicated to depicting scenery realistically. The Barbizon School came up in the mid-1800s, becoming popular in United States. American Realists included Robert Henri, Grant Wood, and Madame X.


  • Gustave Courbet’s The Stonebreakers, 1849 and 1850
  • Honor Daumier’s The Washerwoman, 1863
  • Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners, 1857
  • Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930
  • Gustave Courbet’s Young Women from the Village, 1852

Fun Facts

  • For his political activism, Gustave Courbet was jailed for six months in 1871.

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Some Examples of Realism Artwork

Joan Of Arc (C1412-1431) realism artwork by Jules Bastien Lepage

Joan Of Arc (C1412-1431)

Cottages at Wellfleet realism artwork by Edward Hopper

Cottages at Wellfleet

Lighthouse realism artwork by Boyan Dimitrov