Gustave Courbet, The Wounded Man

Artistic Realism: From Representation to Revolution

Instructor: Samantha Hill
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The middle of the nineteenth century saw a vast transformation in art and aesthetics from the ideal values of polite bourgeois society to a revolutionary form of radical Realism. Leading the charge of the Realist movement was Gustav Courbet, who asked, “Whose lives are portrayed in art?” And “Whose life is worth depicting?” We might also ask: Whose life is worth looking at? When Courbet presented his now famous “A Burial at Ornans” in 1850—his painting of an ordinary funeral of an ordinary, working-class man—he broke defiantly with the tradition of Romanticism, which had till that point restricted itself to depicting scenes from bourgeois life. The painting catapulted Courbet to fame (or infamy); and the Realist movement he inspired spread quickly from Paris to artistic centers throughout Europe and the United States, where it resonated not only with visual artists, but also with an emerging generation of writers, composers, and labor and socialist activists. If Realism today connotes aesthetic conservatism, its original intentions were wholly revolutionary. What did it mean to extend representation to the lives of “ordinary” people? How can visual art produce new subjectivities? How can we understand the emergence of Realism in the context of industrial capitalism and an increasing awareness of, and anxiety about, society? What does it mean to represent the real?

In this course, we will explore the aesthetics, politics, and legacy of artistic Realism, immersing ourselves in a catalog of Realist art while attending to the historical and political context in which Realism emerged. What spurred the Realist turn? How did it differ, not only in content, but in form and technique, from prior figurative painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? What is the relationship between revolutionary politics and Realist art forms? How can visual Realism be situated alongside realisms in other domains? How might works of art challenge conventional forms of morality? Nearly 200 years after “A Burial at Ornans,” what can artistic realism mean for us today? To answer these questions, we will look at selections from philosophy, political theory, literature, and poetry. Artists and authors will include Gustav Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Menzel, Proudhon, Karl Marx, TJ Clark, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy, among others. 

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
February 04 — February 25, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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