New Access to Reality

One of the most century-defining events of the nineteenth century was the invention of photography. Through the camera obscura had been around for generations, the ability to fix an image in light onto a metal plate (and later a glass or film negative) afforded entirely new possibilities in portraiture and visual culture.

Optional: Smarthistory: Early Photography

This technology was especially revolutionary when it was used to represent the Civil War, completely de-romanticizing combat and recording the scale of death in America’s bloodiest war.

MoMA: Alexander Gardner, Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

What questions does this photograph bring up about the documentary power of photography? What is the relationship between image and truth?

The development of lithography, a printmaking process using a stone slab, was also instrumental in giving artists access to a broader audience, even to share political images.

Yale: Gericault, Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man

Gericault’s series responded to the abject poverty he saw in the streets of industrial cities. Indeed as the Industrial Revolution raged on, the gap between the rich and the poor widened and many in Europe gained a new social consciousness as inequality was ever more visible. One of the main thinkers of the middle of the 19th century was Karl Marx (1818-1883) whose thoughts on capitalism would not only influence 19th century history, but the 20th century as well.

Primary Source: Karl Marx on Alienation

What does Marx find dehumanizing about modern life? How does work relate to the individual?


One of the most prominent painters in Realism was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), whose desire to paint modern life led him to paint subject matter usually not allowed the scale of history painting. To Courbet, the emotionality of Romanticism was too distant from real life, and he desired an art that would not only speak about the way the world really was but also potentially spark change.

Optional: The Art Story: Gustave Courbet

Smarthistory: Courbet, Stonebreakers

Smarthistory: Courbet, Burial at Ornans

Primary Source: Courbet’s Statement on Realism

How does Courbet challenge the status quo with these two major paintings? How does he challenge the Salon? Reading his statement, what is his attitude towards his work? How is this a very “modern” idea?

In the United States, Realism also took hold as painters like Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Thomas Eakins desired to depict modern American realities.

Met Museum: Winslow Homer, Dressing for the Carnival

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Thomas Eakins, Gross Clinic

Summary Questions:

What inspired the turn to the real in the middle of the 19th century?

How did artists like Courbet challenge the Salon?

What changes in visual culture were brought on by the invention of photography? What impacts can you foresee for the future of visual arts, especially painting?

Outline for Class Notes:

2.05- Realism