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The Art of Realism

How Real?
Gustave Courbet<br/>French, 1819–77<br/><em>Chateau d'Ornans</em>, 1855 <br/>Oil on canvas <br/>The John R. Van Derlip Fund and the William Hood Dunwoody Fund.
  Gustave Courbet
French, 1819–77
Chateau d'Ornans, 1855
Oil on canvas
The John R. Van Derlip Fund and the William Hood Dunwoody Fund.


Gustave Courbet painted this scene of the French countryside during a period in which people in France expected art to depict a perfect world, much prettier than the one they lived in. But Courbet believed that art should be truthful and depict the actual world, dirt and all. Courbet called himself a "painter of the real," vowing only to paint what he could see. He believed that art had the power to teach people lessons, or even criticize society.

This painting is of Ornans, the town where Courbet grew up. On the surface the scene is serene. But it also has a revolutionary hidden meaning. The houses on the hill sit atop the ruins of an old castle destroyed by the French government in the 1600s to prevent the provinces from organizing together to take power away from the monarchy. The village built on the ruins represents how the peasants of Courbet's time were able to thrive over past oppression. Courbet celebrated the everyday lives of the working class in his art; he shows a woman doing laundry in the foreground of this picture.

Courbet's painting not only depicts the real world, but it also actually includes it. Look closely at the painting. How would you describe the texture?
If it looks gritty and bumpy, it's because Courbet actually mixed his paint with dirt from the valley. By mixing in dirt, he made the painting that much more real. In fact, his painting style offended the art critics because it was so unrefined. The ruggedness of the painted surface reflects the tough lives of the peasants. The dirt also reminds us of nature's power in connecting our past, present, and future.

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1. Winslow Homer was an American painter who depicted the world as he saw it. While Realism was a controversial movement in France, it was a traditional style for American artists. Paintings like this one allowed Americans to see worlds about which they may never have known. Winslow Homer, American, 1836–1910. The Conch Divers, 1885. Transparent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor, blotting, scraping, and spattering, over graphite. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.
2. The Ife (ee-fay) culture of Nigeria had a rich tradition of realist sculpture dating back to 1050 CE. Portrait heads like this one show careful attention to the details of facial features, including the pattern of scarification. Africa, Nigeria (Ife), Shrine Head, 12th–14th century. Terracotta. The John R. Van Derlip Fund.
3. This closeup shows just how gritty the texture of this painting really is. Gustave Courbet, French, 1819–77. Chateau d'Ornans (detail), 1855. Oil on canvas. The John R. Van Derlip Fund and the William Hood Dunwoody Fund.


January 2013