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Realism in Western Europe was a reaction at first of French painters against nineteenth-century Romanticism. Then, the movement spread into other European regions. The painters took note of the social realities of their sciety, in cities and in the countryside, and they depicted life as harsh and real as it was to draw attention to the ramping poverty. The originally strong movement lost impetus to Impressionism, but it revivened in the twentieth century, became a major tendency in the 1930’s by the social engagement of European and American artists, and then was taken up as the preferred art form of state hegemonies in Russia and Germany, though of course then not anymore in a form that was controversial to those states, but that suported them. Realism was by far the main movement of Russian art since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Realism was a period of style that covered works in Russia throughout the nineteenth century, parts of Western European painting in that century, and an enduring style of depiction that took various forms in the twentieth century.


In the beginning of the nineteenth century, French realist artists worked together in the village of Barbizon near Paris, close to the forests of Fontainebleau. They painted in the open air and made mostly landscapes, sometimes also of the common people at work in the fields of the country. They studied the effects of light on the landscapes, and thus prepared the way for the Impressionists.
Painters of the Barbizon school were Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.

The Hague

The School of Barbizon inspired in the nineteenth century a comparable school in the Netherlands: the School of The Hague, named after the city where a group of artists had come together.
Painters were J Israels, H. Weissenbruch, M. Maris, J. Bosboom, P.J.C. Gabriels, H.W. Mesdag, A. Mauve and others, among which also Vincent van Gogh in his first period.

The Wanderers or Itinerants

Realism was extremely important in Russian nineteenth century painting.

In 1863, a group of fourteen artists left the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts of Russia to protest against its conservatism and rigidity. A true association was foundedn only in 1870, a first exhibition held by this younger Russian generation of painters called the "Wanderers", "Itinerants" or "Peredvizhniki". These painters were interested in the social condition of the Russian people.
Painters of this group were Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), Vassili Perov (1834-1882), Grigori Miassoiedov (1834-1911), and Nikolai Gay (1831-1894).
The movement would later grow into the "Critical Realists".

The "Wanderers" movement more or less dissolved into the later – around 1890 – St Petersburg founded "Mir Iskusstva" (World of Arts), an association of younger generation of artists among whom Alexander Benois (1870-1960), Constantin Samov, Leon Bakst (1866-1924), and Evgeni Lanceray (1875-1946).

Around 1910, this movement culminated into a new association now founded in Moscow, called the "Union of Russian Artists" with Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930), Filipp Maliavine (1869-1940), Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) , Constantin Yuon (1875-1958) and Igor Grabar (1871-1960) among others.

"Mir Iskusstva" in St Petersburg and "Union of Russian Artists" worked alongside and in various groups that had names such as "Blue Rose", "The Link", "The Triangle", "The Crown" and "The Valet of Diamonds". This last group and the "Blue Rose" were most influential, emerging onto the Russian Avant-Garde of abstract painters, the first abstracts in the world.

American Social Realism

A group of American painters around 1900 and after, followed upon realist styles. Painters of this period were Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), and others.
A group also formed in New York, called the "Ashcan" School. The movement is now called "Social Realisme, and it showed socialising tendencies in American art before and after the New Deal, even though the term mostly indicates the painters of after the 1930s. Social Realism was an urban-oriented movement.
Regionalism took the American countryside as subject. The content of Social Realism paintings was a from of genre.
Social Realist painters were Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Raphael Soyer (1898-1987), Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), Philip Evergood (1901-1973) and others.

Socialist Realism

Realism, as we defined it above, is a nineteenth century phenomenon. Various trends to Realism inspired by Communist ideology renewed in the twentieth century.
One of these was a movement called AKhRR, the "Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia". This group was opposed to the Russian abstract avant-garde. It was founded in 1921, and considered the avant-garde a heritage of the bourgeois order.

Similar movements existed in Germany. One was the "Red Group", Communist party artists of Weimar, founded in 1924. Another was the ARBKD, the "German Association of revolutionary Visual Artists", formed in Berlin in 1928.

These schools led in the beginning of the 1930’s in Russia to Socialist Realism, the official Communist Stalinist art, which lauded in its "Dogma of Social Realism" of 1932 the socialistic construction of the country and the revolutionary triumphs of its industry. Social realism had to serve the masses, and therefore had to be appreciated rapidly and easily by a wide public.
To these movements belonged the artists Alexander Gerassimov, Alexander Deineka (1899-1969), Yuri Primenov (1903-1977), Arkadi Plastov (1893-1972), and Serafina Ryangina (1891-1955).

The Mexican painters Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siquerios (1896-1975) founded a similarly revolutionary Communist and Anarchist inspired movement of mainly mural painting in Mexico, a style that also Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1999) applied.

A still later realist, but also neo-classical art based on social-realist ideas was Nazi Academicism. This also was a state art, which existed for the purpose to support the program of a political regime.

American Regionalism

American Regionalism was a movement of the 1930’s that had its roots in the American agricultural mainland. It opposed Social realism of leftist North-American artists, and pointed to the conservative values of the United States. This movement is also sometimes called "American Gothic", after a painting of Wood. The most typical painter of this period was this Grant Wood (1891-1942).

Realism in general

All lines and directions were well known and exploited by the time the Realist tendencies started. In landscapes, of course, horizontal lines were emphasised and figures set well in front. They placed the vertical forms that contrast with the horizontal lines of the landscape. These contrasts between vertical and horizontal were often used to underscore the social themes.

The Realists used strong composition, and often vertical and horizontal forms, which they showed as if in conflict, such as in low horizons and a few figures standing out and higher than the horizon in order to emphasise the conflict between man and the land. Oblique lines and areas of compositions were not often applied.

The nineteenth century Realist artists painted rather dark colours, detailed realism in scenes. This was the case for the Barbizon and The Hague artists. Realist tendencies of the twentieth century however preferred clear, even hard colours.

The content of the Realists was reality in all its forms. That meant however as well scenes of social drama, of poverty and humbleness of the less favoured, as very realistic landscape views. Contrary to the landscapes of the Romantics, the Realists seemed to prefer the gloomy, menacing aspect of nature.

In realist landscape painting, much attention was given to depth and space, although nature was looked at closely and most of the scenes remained intimate. Realist landscapes were not as wide and as dramatic as the Romantics preferred.

In the nineteenth century, French Realism painters were Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles Daubigny, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau, also Vincent Van Gogh in his early years.

Nineteenth-century Realism was a reaction on Romanticism. It delivered mostly a change in content, but also in colour, since many Realists worked in deeper tones, in darker and heavy colours. Realism returned to non-idealist reality. They wrote that nothing could be as beautiful and noble as pure reality. This was a reaction to the escape in ideas and dreams of the Romantics. The Realist painters also painted landscapes, as the Romantics, but they did not express their view of nature in its mystique.
Realists painted life in the country, as it was, less dramatic and mysterious than before, and they painted also the life of the country people and their livestock in open meadows, rather than in hidden mountain or forest scenes. Realists also showed a tendency to social engagement, which was however more present in some painters than in others.

The Pilgrimage to Saint Guidon at Anderlecht

Charles Degroux (1825-1870). Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. Brussels. 1857.

The scene of the "Pilgrimage to Saint Guidon at Anderlecht" represents a Catholic procession of horse riders before the church of Saint Guidon. Bystanders look passively at the riders as these pass the front doors of the church. The scene is painted with all the figures of a crowd gathered for a Roman Catholic religious feast.
The persons, horse, and the church are shown realistically, as if a photograph had been taken of the scene. The painting might be interesting as a nineteenth century document of the city-life of Brussels and more particularly of Anderlecht, a popular suburb of Brussels. Anderlecht is the quarter where the slaughterhouse of Brussels was, a part of Belgium’s capital where all the classes of society lived together.

Charles Degroux painted the "Pilgrimage" mostly in brown-yellow colours, a little on the dark side, but with quite more light than other Realists of his time painted. An oblique band of light is running the long of the painting, in which Degroux shows lively colours, mostly golden yellow hues and some red colours. The leading horse is white and that enhances the light in the scene, which is bright in front and then darkens towards the centre and the background.
The light is apparently on the main scene, and here Degroux painted his figures in most detail and in the liveliest hues, as if indeed this was a joyous celebration. Look at the golden robe and cloak of the young woman situated almost in the middle. She stands with her back to the viewer, but the play of light on her shawl and robe are splendidly painted.
Degroux was quite a professional, who might not have been one of the foremost artists of the Realist movement, but who nevertheless had all the skills of a master painter. The riders are well drawn too, and so is the light falling on the Gothic architecture of the church.

The riders and the church introduce an element of verticality that balances the general horizontal band of the people standing lower than the horses. The horses are coming towards the viewer, so they are growing towards the front. This feature, together with darkening colours in the background, provides a subtle feeling of perspective, of depth of space.

The overall mood of the painting is a static one. The riders are sitting straight up on their horses. The people are standing, and the lines of the church as the windowed fronts of the houses in the far add to a sense of immutability. This static feeling is not what we would expect as viewers, since the procession should be moving, and all should be in a joyful chaos of figures. We would expect more of that bustle, and of the joy, to be shown. We would have expected children playing, horses prancing, the flags and standards joyously flying in the wind. We would expect to see the white colours of the priests and the figures of the bearers of the symbol of the pilgrimage. Degroux painted none of that.

This is a sad scene. The crowd seems to be silent. They are standing and looking. A few people are piously kneeling in the middle, but these are children and there is no playful energy in them. They also never look at the viewer. The horse riders that pass through the people look haughty. They are sitting high on their massive Brabant horses, which are horses that draw carts and are not kept for sporting. The riders look forward, do not gently or proudly link with the crowd. They could be the occupiers of the land, riding in a procession of victory to take possession of Anderlecht and of the people that have just come out of curiosity to look at them in silence and in submission.

There is a dark corner in Degroux’ painting, on the right, a corner one easily forgets at first glance. In this corner stand the men of Brussels. They also have come to the procession, to watch, but not to participate. They have come to watch, but their impassiveness is a scorn and a defiance. One figure is sitting in the shadows with the head towards the viewer, as if he refuses to look at the procession. Higher up on the left, still in the dark triangle, the silence continues in people leaning with their backs to the walls. And just in front of the shadows stand a man and a woman in the full light but with their backs to the riders. These are in empathy with the poor in the shadows, and almost ostentatiously disapprove of the riders. The man of that couple is the only figure painted in a faint blue colour, so that the attention of the viewer would not miss him.
Here is the essential message of Degroux’ painting. He painted a procession organised for all, but only the rich are riding horses. Protest against the blatant injustice of the great difference between rich and poor seems to be growing. The rich merchants have horses and ride high; the poor stand in the shadows. A few people show their dissent. But this is still a Roman Catholic procession, so devotion is in a few knelt young people. The priests are not there however, absent at the differences in society or pushed back by the power of the wealthy, pulled to the background from where they eventually emerged.

The significance of the painting becomes clear when we put the scene of Degroux in the perspective of the social climate of his times. The middle of the nineteenth century was for Brabant and Brussels a period in which the differences between the classes of society were important, very apparent and growing. The new industrialism had created a bourgeoisie and pauperised the masses. The farmers were ruined, as farms consolidated under the economic pressure. The poor flocked from the countryside to the cities. The landowners amassed ever more land while the farmers starved. The farmers came to the towns to augment a labour force that could be exploited by merchant and industrialists at low cost.
The ruling class of the country was the nobility, the Barons, the Counts and the Dukes. These rarely lived in the cities. The new wealthy of industry and trade built on their wealth in the towns. As they wanted to become rich quickly, they had to exploit more, such as the merchants of the slaughterhouses of Anderlecht.
Degroux’ painting shows these rich people leading the procession, forming the procession, whereas the clergy is absent, as if it did not know its place between these classes yet.
Roman Catholic religion was the only consolation of the poor, in all previous centuries, but the people increasingly understood that a part of the clergy, especially around the cathedrals, still sided with the class of society that owned and held jealously to the power and the money in that society. Religion would be seen in the end as part of the harsh differences in wealth. The clergy would be looked at as wanting to perpetuate a situation of extortion, for the sake of a peace and apathy that could be endured no longer in the face of the injustices.

The too apparent cleft in society led to rebellions after the years of fear and impassiveness. Tensions grew, and Degroux showed the lack of sympathy in the people standing on the left defiantly against the walls. We can hear the mocking remarks, the anger and frustration. It is shown in the colours, since the poor stand in the shadows of the left triangle. It is shown in the lines of the painting, since the horses advance and emphasise the vertical directions, whereas the people form a lower band that is horizontal and deep. It shows in the haughtiness - or is it unease and fear – in the front rider, even if he stays impervious to the tension. And behind the riders grow the high lines of the Gothic church, the lines of hierarchy and of supreme authority. The riders are closer to these lines, which oppress the low people. Finally, the front rider is confronted with children, whereas the adults prefer to stay in the dark background in silent defiance and probably also in shame.

The year is 1857. The scene is Belgium in Western Europe. Belgium was a new country; it received its independence only in 1830. Belgium is a younger state than the United States of America. Industrialism soared. In Europe of the late 1800s, the metallurgic industry in particular grew massively, mainly in the carbon belts of Europe, among which Belgium. This brought new concentrations of people to the existing cities of Wallony (the French-speaking southern part of Belgium), to the old towns of Lorraine in France, to Saxony, the Rhineland, the Ruhr Region, Poland and Czechia. The cities became black by the coal dust pollution. No bright pictures could be painted.

Western Europe knew economic crisises. In 1831 one such crisis bankrupted Charles Degroux’ father, so that the Degroux family of ten children had to move from the French part of Comines, a town on the border of France and Belgium, to Brussels where Charles’ father got a job as a clerk. Degroux came from a family of ten children – one child died very young - ten as in his painting of the "Benedicite". Since the beginning of the 1840s, social critics were uttered frequently by economists, militant politicians and journalists such as Louis Blanc and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, against the appalling conditions of the working class. In 1846-1847 the economical situation in Western Europe became catastrophical. It was linked to insufficient agricultural production. Famines broke out, especially in Great Britain and Ireland. Tens of thousands immigrated to North America. Remember the ‘Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown, painted in 1852.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels founded the Communist League in London in 1847. Its former name was the "League of the Just", as justice and dignity they claimed indeed. The Communist Manifesto dates from 1848. From 1848 on also, a wave of revolutions rolled over Europe: Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Venice and Milan. The French Republic was proclaimed, the President of France would be chosen by universal voting. In 1851 two workers, William Newton and William Allen, founded in Great Britain the "Union of Engineers", one of the first workers’ unions to claim higher wages in an organised way. In 1853, Prussia installed a new law on children’s’ work: children workers had to be older than ten years, and should not work more than six hours because they had to be at least three hours at school – this either in public schools or at their working place. The Bessemer converter was invented in 1855; Friedrich Krupp of Essen in Germany applied it eagerly to poor steel for wheels and cannons. Industrialism still expanded.

There were constant battles between the armies of the European countries during that time. The Crimea war started in 1854. In 1857 there was a new financial and economic crisis in the United States, Great Britain and France especially. Unemployment grew. New revolutions started. Giuzeppe Garibaldi came, though by royal decree, at the head of an Italian army. He fought and defeated the Austrian army. The former French president, now adorned with the title of Emperor Napoleon III, also declared war to Austria. Solferino, the very bloody battle at which the idea of the International Red Cross grew and was founded by Henri Dunant later in 1864, was fought in 1859. Karl Marx published ‘Das Kapital’ in 1867.

In 1848, in Belgium, a small army of Belgian and French workers threatened to march against Brussels, but was defeated by the Belgian regular army. In 1849 the workers in the cotton manufactories of Ghent went on a strike for two months. In "Das Kapital" of 1867, Karl Marx called Belgium the paradise of continental liberalism. He noted that in the high furnace factories for every 1000 persons worked 149 women, 98 boys and 85 girls younger than sixteen. He further told that between 1850 and 1863, Belgium had doubled its exports of carbon and iron G16 . Liberal Belgium was a powerhouse where enormous fortunes were made. Belgian centralisation of industry was an example for the world, not only because so much carbon and steel were exported, but also because of its output of machinery, locomotives, and railways. The countryside and the farmers did not participate in the wealth however; workers were exploited and lived in abject poverty.

Charles Degroux was born in 1825; he died in 1870 a mere 45 years old. His father had brought the family to Brussels, and Degroux studied at the Brussels academy where one of his teachers was François-Joseph Navez. Charles Degroux did not have a good health. He had a weak hearth, and would die suddenly in his workshop, leaving his wife and children without any means so that they had to sell all Degroux’ paintings and drawings at an auction G73 . His friends, all artists, paid for his tomb.
Charles Degroux was very pious and seemed to have found solace in his prayers. He lived off his painting. He was not poor, but certainly also not rich. Degroux has not made a great many paintings, but he painted in the new realist way that suited the industrialism and the social struggles he saw around him. He painted religious scenes also, and historical scenes hoping to earn more money. He always showed the poverty in his religious scenes, and always the poor people were the first subjects of his paintings. He lived through these socially troubled years not without being deeply touched.

Belgium was very Catholic then. In 1854 Parliament adopted the Convention of Antwerp, reinstating the influence of the Catholic Church on public schools. Yet, there was also quite some anti-Catholicism. A liberal anti-clerical party won the elections of 1857. Belgium would remain stubbornly Catholic, especially in the countryside, in Flanders and among the farmers.
In Italy, in 1860, the year in which Degroux painted his "Grace" or "Benedicite", Garibaldi entered the Papal States and defeated its army.

Pictorial art of the times since 1850 changed from Neo-Classicism to Realism. Its main proponent was the Frenchman Gustave Courbet who exhibited "The Stone Breakers" at the Brussels painting salon of 1851. His paintings caused a stir in art, but when we now look at them in retrospect, they still seem very nice, sweet, still devoted to harmony, to restraining rules of art, and not very revolutionary. Yes, the subjects had evolved from Greek and Roman mythology to everyday life, and from portraying middle-class rich people to picturing common folk and workers. But the paintings were still addressed to middle-class buyers. Just as Degroux’ picture they are not really intended to shock, only to show. They remain harmonious in lines and colours, story telling, and within the rules.
Realists like Degroux, were painters who did not deliberately by their subjects, their content, seek higher beauty and ideas. By showing common people, the Realist painters drew the intellectualism and individualism of Classicist and even Impressionist painting back to harsh reality. Critics vehemently opposed these views. Realist Art, was to be idealistic, not supposed to show the hardness of life.

Some of the real horrors would be shown only much later by Belgian painters like Eugène Laermans, Constantin Meunier and Charles Hermans. The social-realism movement would lose momentum by 1880. Painters needed buyers; they frequented the middle class and were from the middle class themselves. Peasants and high-furnace workers do not usually spawn painters, and when that happened nevertheless, these painters quickly moved to middle-class circles, were provided for by the middle class or the very rich, and moved in their circles.

Charles Degroux thus painted a scene that represents the tension in Belgian society. His picture is static, because sadness had to be shown and tension. His pictur is a silent accusation. The people have come to a religious procession only to see that the leaders of the procession are the bourgeois merchants, and no priests are in view. Where is religion in this painting? Notwithstanding the title, Degroux did not paint a religious scene but a social theme, and the antagonism between the classes of society. His painting is very realistic, really a scene as Degroux might have actually seen. But in order to show reality, an artist has to re-arrange that reality to capture the undercurrents of feelings. Degroux did just that.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) who knew Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) the best known French Realist, wrote in 1865 on the painters of this the called "Naturalist" movement, "Should one then say, as the writers of the new school do, that these pictures are pure realism? Take care, I should reply; your realism would compromise the truth that you claim to serve. The real is not the same thing as the true; the former refers mainly to matter, the second to the laws that govern it; the latter alone is intelligible, and can on that account serve as object and goal of art; the former has, of itself, no sense" G87 .
Charles Degroux showed the undertones of social injustice. He did that very efficiently, and in a subtle way, so one sees a nice scene, maybe a bit strange in its lack of energy, but a scene in subdued harmonious colours that would probably not greatly affect first the viewers.

The Realist movement in painting first started as a non-romantic depiction of landscapes and cityscapes, which produced almost a genre in which only the interested viewer would find the true mood of the picture. The viewer, who only briefly passes by such pictures, does not catch teh bitter udnertones. The artists who worked in the small town of Barbizon near Paris, had evolved to become painters, like Degroux, who showed the dangerous, bitter, revolutionary undertones of their social engagement.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: August 2010
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