Best known as a lithographer, Daumier produced thousands of graphic works for journals such as La Caricature and Le Charivari, satirizing government officials and the manners of the bourgeoisie. As early as 1832, Daumier was imprisoned for an image of Louis-Philippe as Rabelais' Gargantua, seated on a commode and expelling public honors to his supporters. Daumier parodied the king again in 1834 with his caricature Past, Present, Future (41.16.1), in which the increasingly sour expressions on the three faces of Louis-Philippe suggest the failures of his regime.
As a result of Courbet's political activism during the Paris Commune of 1871, he too was jailed. Incarcerated at Versailles before serving a six-month prison sentence for participation in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, Courbet documented his observations of the conditions under which children were held in his drawing Young Communards in Prison (1999.251), published in the magazine L'Autograph, one of a small number of works inspired by his experiences following the fall of the Commune.
Realism developed as an artistic movement in mid-19th-century France. Its leading proponent was Gustave Courbet, whose paintings of menial labor and ordinary people exemplify his belief that painters should depict only their own time and place. Honore Daumier boldly confronted authority with his satirical lithographs commenting on the plight of the working class. Edouard Manet shocked the public with his paintings featuring promiscuous women and rough brush strokes, which emphasized the flatness of the painting surface, paving the way for modern abstract art.
The Parisian academy jury selecting work for the 1855 Salon (part of the Exposition Universelle in that year) rejected two paintings by Gustave Courbet on the grounds that his subjects and figures were too coarse (so much so as to be plainly "socialistic") and too large (Burial at Ornans is almost 22 feet long). In response, Courbet withdrew all of his works and set up his own exhibition outside the grounds, calling it the Pavilion of Realism.
Of great importance for the later history of art, Realism also involved a reconsideration of the painters' primary goals and departed from the established priority on illusionism. Accordingly, Realists called attention to painting as a pictorial construction by the ways they applied pigments or manipulated composition.
This interest in the laboring poor as subject matter had special meaning for the mid-19th-century French audience. In 1848, workers rebelled against the bourgeois leaders of the newly formed Second Republic and against the rest of the nation, demanding better working conditions and a redistribution of property. The army quelled the revolution in three days, but not without long-lasting trauma and significant loss of life. The Revolution of 1848 thus raised the issue of labor as a national concern and placed workers on center stage, both literally and symbolically.
The Realist movement in French art flourished from about 1840 until the late nineteenth century, and sought to convey a truthful and objective vision of contemporary life. Realism emerged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 that overturned the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and developed during the period of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As French society fought for democratic reform, the Realists democratized art by depicting modern subjects drawn from the everyday lives of the working class.
The Realist painter Jean Francois Millet's inspiration came from rural life rather than the town or city. Like Courbet, Millet had grown up among farming people. After a decade of living in Paris, where he received artistic training, he returned to the countryside. From the first, Millet was attracted to the theme of work and workers. In the past, artists had often shown peasants as humorous or picturesque subjects. Millet made them monumental.
Realist artists focused on the world around them, particularly problems like poverty and political repression. Romantic artists like Goya, Gericault, and Delacroix had tackled such subjects, but Realists went a step further in exposing the gritty details of contemporary life. Led by writers like Flaubert, Galzac, and Zola, French literature moved in the same direction.
Although French artists took the lead in promoting Realism and the notion that artists should depict the realities of modern life, this movement was not exclusively French. The Realist foundation in epiricism and positivism appealed to artists in many countries, including Germany, Russia, England, and the United States. Realism emerged in a variety of forms and places and was established by the end of the century.