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Discuss the changing perceptions of art during the 19th century in Europe.

Did the last

years of the 19th century constitute a major break from the earlier tradition?

Famous Renaissance artist Michelangelo believed that The true work of art is but a shadow
of the divine perfection. What was to change in by late 18th century in Europe was this very
notion of the perfect world. Friedrich Theodore said We paint everything-Gods and
Madonnas, peasants and heros... 19th century Europe saw a string of artistic trends, which
may or may not have been a superseding phenomenon of the Enlightenment. These artistic
trends sought to mark a clear break from the Victorian styles of art and more importantly,
were now open for critique by sections of society other than the elite. This change in the
perception of art during 19th century took the form of development of artistic trends, namely,
Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism and later in 20th century, Expressionism and many
other sub-trends like Cubism, Symbolism, Dadaism and Surrealism.
James J. Sheehan1 believes that 19th century culture had a distinctive character, which
emerged both from innovation and from the way in which it combined and developed new
ideas which had roots in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sheehan points out the undercut catalysts
and influences of culture in 19th century-Institutionalisation, Secularization, science, new
historic thought, and systematisation.
Romanticism was an intellectual movement that emerged in the late 18th century as a reaction
to Enlightenment. Romantics propagated emotions and downplayed reason. For many of
them, knowledge was a product of both inert feelings and perception. Therefore, romanticism
stressed individualism and propagated the idea that individual creativity was a product of
unique personality and extreme experience. Literature, art and music of early 19th century
reflected the Romantic Movement. As pointed out by John Merriman, during the romantic
era, swooning and fainting came into vogue because they seemed to be honest expressions of
Romanticisms adoption of artistic freedom and evolution of the individual came to be linked
to liberalism and also nationalism.
Romantic writers saw the arts as embodying the equation between nature and spirit in the
search for freedom. Romantic painters sought to convey feeling through the depiction of
helplessness of the individual who was facing the power or wrath of nature in the form of
storms, surging seas, dark forests. Such themes were portrayed with deep and rich colours. In
France, Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) caught the public attention with his Officer of the
Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (painted in 1812). This painting was almost a worshipful
one of a Napoleonic officer in the heat of the battle. Gericault was fascinated by shipwrecks
and sought out real life survivors of such tragedies to paint his work. E.g-The Raft of The
German romantics like Schiller looked out for heroic genius who survives the constraints
placed on him by the state, religion and societal convention. Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von
Goethes (1749-1832) subject in his painting Faust (1790) seems to struggle against a society

which ceases to understand him.

A characteristic feature of Romantic artists, as pointed out by Merriman2 is that, at least at the
beginning, they were outsiders-without any professional positions, saddened by the tragedy
that their quest for individual fulfilment was difficult as they were considered the lessgifted people. Merriman believes that romantics bared the suffering of their souls.
James A. Winders3 points out that the emphasis of Romanticism on sentiment, emotion and
spirituality might have been emergent within the late stages of the Enlightenment. He gives
the example of Jacques Rousseau who had a profound influence on Immanuel Kant. Winders
has also drawn our attention to the inherent contradictions within Romantic artists and their
works, namely, the elite versus popular aspect and the motive of communicating directly.
Political contradictions also existed in Romanticism.
Under Romanticism, nature served as the setting for imagery and inspiration which was
conveyed brilliantly by the canvases of various artists, especially German painter Caspar
David Friedrich (1774-1840). Its influence on other spheres like science shows that when
nature was expressed in a number of ways in Romantic art, it made for the modern moments
lasting influences.
Lastly, Winder points out that Romanticism emphasised on the youth and works of Romantic
art increasingly brought to bear on the phenomenon that it was preferable to die young than to
settle into mediocrity.
Marvin Perry4 believes that Romantic poets, artists and musicians broke with the traditional
styles and austere rules and created new cultural forms and techniques. To quote William
Blake, We do not want Greek or Roman models; they should be just and true to our own
imagination. Victor Hugo (1802-1885), a dominant personality among French romantics,
sought art forms that were free from restraints imposed by inherited standards.
The romantics valued aesthetic freedom and diversity. Historian A. D. Lovejoy believed that
diversity is the essence of art and the aim is the fullest possible expression of the abundance
of differences in nature and humans.
Most creative works of art according to the romantics were not photographic imitations of
nature but authentic and spontaneous expressions of the artists emotions, dreams and
fantasies. American painter Washington Allston believed that the real merit of art is formed
by listening to the inner voice.
Realism was a cultural style or tradition from late 1840s and 1850s onwards that developed in
France. Realists rejected Romantics; it was a revolt against the exotic subject matter and
exaggerated emotionalism and dram of the Romantic movement. Realists, as opposed to
Romantics, sought to depict real and contemporary people and situations with as much truth
and accuracy as possible. More importantly, they depicted people of all classes and therefore,
many historians see the movement as a reaction to bourgeois culture and styles like Gothic
style and Neo-classicism.
Due to their preference for depiction of the real sections of society, the realist art reflected the
changes brought about by industrial and commercial revolutions.
Innovations of industrializing economies of Europe fuelled the realistic art in a significant

manner. People were taken in by the representations which looked objectively real.
Realism developed certain branches by the close of 19th century, namely, Social Realism.
Social realism strongly propounded the avoidance of artificiality. Therefore, a lot of artists
who were influenced by realism capture the unprettified details. Treatment of the subjects in a
heroic or sentimental manner was rejected and those influence by this trend argued that one
paints something real only when one depicts the real contradictions in society.
Some of the famous Realist painters were Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, Doumier,
and others. Realist painters, especially Millet and his French counterparts are often called
Barbizon Painters, typically because they moved to a village to depict the real life. They
emphasised on the painting of peasants, harvests, animals and other symbols of village life.
This was a clear break from the Romantic themes that zeroed in on the elite section and court
life. Millet painted very famous works like the Gleaners (1857) and The Angelus (1859); here
he wanted to give the peasant a kind of dignity which the middle class never acknowledged.
The middle-class viewers in fact, were repelled by the depiction of peasant life and peasant
Courbet was the son of a peasant and was very critical of idealization. He shocked the middle
class audience by resorting to paint the life in its most crude form. His most famous painting
is the Burial in Ornans in which he portrays a relatively well-off family, looking rather
unattractive as a relative is being buried. Another one of his controversial works is The
Bather which depicts an ordinary looking woman assuming a classical pose. The striking
feature not liked by the viewers was not the nudity in the painting but the depiction of an
ordinary woman.
Merriman5 notes that the development of photography during the 1840s may have contributed
to the interest of realists in portraying artistic subjects with a vivid sense of actuality. James
Winders5 points out those realist paintings highlighted the negative aspects of social
existence, subjecting them to artistic dissection. Oil paints especially helped in this regard.
Paris is considered as the capital of 19th century by critique Walter Benjamin as he believed
that it was the centre for innovations in paintings for realism and schools that superseded it.
A renowned master of oil medium was Jean Auguste Ingres (1780-1867), best known for his
Turkish bath; the theme of social class is more evident in his Monsieur Bertin (1832).
Caricaturist Honore Daumier put forward a social consciousness to his portrayal of working
class characters in his paintings where he depicted washerwomen. In such works, realism, as
pointed out by Winders, begins to shade into its successor Naturalism. Courbet is said to have
used this very approach.
Elsewhere in Europe, this trend was more oriented towards exploration of light, colour and
shadow. The implied subject matter was more ambiguous as seen in the works of Danish
artist Christoffer Eckersburg (1783-1853).
Sculptor Auguste Rodins (1840-1917) style and message were neither difficult to
comprehend nor easy to ignore. Such realist artists were anxious to address the public, to
attack the members of their insensitivity.
An undercurrent of Realism called Bourgeois realism developed by 20th century. The

difference between socialist realism and realism was that, while realism movement sought to
realistically depict subjects of social concern, socialist realism concentrated on the meek
working class and their struggle for emancipation. It pressed for the reflection of reality as it
should be, not as it is. Socialist Realism emphasised that art and literature should be
proletarian or relevant to workers.
The advent of Impressionist movement in painting in the 1870s marked a significant break in
the tradition of Realism. It is the stage when artists began to turn away from public and
toward each other.
Impressionist Movement started in France, among a group of artists whose work had been
refused at the annual exhibitions of traditional minded French Royal Academy. They were
given the term impressionist by critics who believed that these artists painted not an object
per se, but only their impression of it. These painters worked to please themselves, to realize
their own potential as artists. A lot of scholars believe that while Impressionists were Realists
in some sense, particularly because they were determined to paint only what they saw, they
were different from the realist artist in many ways. They left it to the mind of the observer to
fill in additional details about their work.
Impressionists worked outside studios, in woods and fields to capture fleeting alterations of
natural scenes with each change in sunlight and shadow. One of the famous impressionists
was Claud Monet (1840-1926) who would go out at sunrise to paint the same object with a
dozen momentary appearances. Others like August Renoire(1841-1919), Mary Cassatt,
Frederic Bazille, etc. were also famous impressionist artists. Monets paintings had little
structure or design in the conventional sense. Renoires subjects included not only landscapes
but portraits and scenes from contemporary life. He is famous for his pink and ivory nudes,
which were an expression of frank sexuality-an additional threat to the middle-classes.
Merriman6 points out how the impressionists attempted to capture their initial, fleeting visual
sensations to recreate on canvas, natures incidents, like the sunlight falling on an object. He
also believes that the subjectivity and artistic style of this trend challenged the fundamental
contemporary assumptions about society and culture, whilst also reflecting the times in which
the impressionists existed. Edouard Manets (1832-1883) works like Olympia (1863) and
Djeuner sur lherbe (1863) challenged the hierarchy of subjects imposed by classicism. He
chose provocatively contemporary subjects enjoying themselves.
The early impressionists were also influenced by the growing commercialisation of leisure in
Paris.7 Edgar Degas (1834-1917)observed Parisians from a variety of backgrounds; he
frequently chose female subjects. Due to his tragic past, Degas presented unflattering, dark
stereotypes of Parisian speculators in his work At the Stock Exchange (1879). Another
impressionist theme was the increasing anonymity of Paris. Degass LAbsinthe (1877) shows
two disconnected figures in a caf which showed an intrinsic part of modern life.
In these new paintings, artists remained detached from their subject; they did not paint to
evoke pity or concern, nor because they had a desire to change the order of things in the
world. They painted to assert the value or importance of a painting as a painting, nothing

more or less. Viewers were therefore not expected to understand the painting in any which
way except on the artists own term. This aspect thus made art a private matter .
Impressionist paintings appeared, especially at first glance as nonnaturalisitc-figures were
distorted, only few significant details were to reflect an entire object and dabs of primary
colour were placed side by side without any trace of blending. For the impressionist artist,
light was the principal factor in determining the appearance of objects.
James Winders8 mentions another artist of this trend, Gustave Caillebotte (1849-1914) whose
work speaks of impressionism. Berthe Morisot (1841-1926) produced impressionist canvases
that explored womens domestic world. Winders notes that Impressionism gave way to
Post-Impressionism, which applied to artists who took the impressionist aesthetic as their
point of departure but moved in idiosyncratic directions, a precursor to 20th century
movement of Expressionism.
Expressionism emerged as a critique of impressionists pre-occupation with momentary
aspects of nature. Expressionists insisted that a painting must represent the artists particular
intellect. But here again, they made art a private matter. Paul Czanne (1839-1906), the most
famous expressionist artist, pushed forward an alternative trend which worked tpwards
expressing an order in nature which he accused the impressionists of ignoring. He began to
reduce natural forms to their geometrical equivalents, to express the idea of basic shapes in
existence. He therefore declared the right of the artist to recreate nature in such a way, so as
to express an intensely personal vision.
The expressionistsexploration with geometric simplification and the optical phenomena
(using binocular vision) rendered slightly different visual perceptions of the same
phenomenon. Czanne inspired many later artistic tradition like Cubism and artists like Pablo
Picasso, Metzei , etc.
Winders9 mentions Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), who was a Dutch born painter and his friend
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). The latter artist often painted on wood surface and his works
glorified tropical motifs.Van Goghs most famous work is The Starry Night, reflects the lives
of poor families; there is a swirl off the canvas. In Paris, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (18641901) captured the personalities of performers and caf habitus of the bohemian district of
Symbolism, another post-Impressionist trend had renowned artists like Odilon Redon (18401916), seemed to illustrate Freudian fascination with dreams and of improbable images.
Parisian painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) achieved a dreamlike quality in his exotic
scenes that inspired the surrealists. Henri Matisse (1869-1954) also extended Czanne use of
distortion, declaring the right of the painter to create according to an individual definition of
aesthetic merit.
Cubism was an artistic style that was developed by Pablo Picasso(1881-1973), a Catalan
Spaniard, who was influenced by Czanne and by African sculpture. This sub-trend resulted

not only in distortion of the subject but also dismemberment. The artists of this sub-trend
separated parts of a figure to re-arrange them in ways, other than normal. The purpose of this
style was partly to symbolise the chaos of modern life and to express defiance of traditional
notions on form. Art, was thus deliberately being created in a way that it did not stand for or
show representational prettiness. Such direct, calculative dismissal of conventional form
reflected that Cubist artists were disdainful of the problems of the world.
Most of the early 20th century trends in art remained highly problematic due to the
abstractionism they promoted.
Dadaism and Surrealism represented a break with representational art. Dadaism emerged out
of certain Dada activities during the First World War and was an artistic movement that came
out of Dada, a place in Zurich, Switzerland. It quickly spread to Berlin, Paris, New York, etc.
Apart from being anti-war, it had political affinities with radical left. Dadaists believed that
bourgeois nationalism and colonial interest had fuelled the war. They imitated the techniques
developed in Cubist movement by pasting cut pieces of paper and extended their art to
encompass items like transport tickets, plastic, to portray aspects of life. They used scissors
and glue. They created an anti-art culture by rejecting the prevailing standards in art and
sought to offer sensibilities as a form of protest against the world of mutual destruction.
Surrealists sought to resolve the prevailing contradictory conditions of dream and reality by
painting unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision. They created strange
creatures from everyday objects and strove to develop painting techniques that allowed the
unconscious to express itself. Surrealist artists developed automatism as a way to
revolutionise human experience.
The various artistic trends were representative of a new phase in cultural history, that is,
Modernism. As a general term, Modernism embraced the immense variety of aesthetic breaks
with the European realist tradition. The 19th century trends post Romanticism and early 20th
century trends were considered decadent. According to Marxist scholars, the reforms depicted
reality, and this was a self-critical and progressive stage. Artists in this period sought to
escape to a position from which they could learn and then express what was closest to their
own consciousness. Art in 19th century, one can say, witnessed improvisation of thought,
expression and artistic dexterity as it evolved itself from one artistic trend to another.
Nevertheless, all the artistic movements from 19th century onwards marked a very distinct
stage which was different from previous periods cultural expression. Art henceforth, only
saw a positive development as the themes became more and more bold and challenging.