When it comes to the subject matter of the paintings, Renaissance artists replicated biblical stories through their portrayal of society while realists and impressionists capture society as it is.
Renaissance art is idealized. The representation of nude figure was central to all Renaissance art as well as iconography of biblical and mythological female characters. Emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and Mary is shown through iconography such as the Holy Family or the Madonna nursing the Christ Child, which is portrayed in ‘Small Cowper Madonna’. In this painting, the Madonna and Child dominate the composition, it seems apparent that this is an image of a loving mother and her child as the halos appear very faint. The child has his arms around his mother and the mother holds the child tenderly by the body. The child seems to attempt to spring up from the mother’s lap. In this case, the mother and child are physically integrated but psychologically remote as their gazes are not fixated on each other. This is due to Madonna’s foreknowledge of the future of the child’s suffering and death which is shown in her melancholic expression. Raphael attempts to move the audience with this holy picture. Therefore, a storytelling effect is reached in this painting, a depiction of biblical references and conventional portrayal of the Madonna and the Christ Child. There is no indication of social reality or how people in society are behaved. Hence, reality is not shown in Raphael’s painting, which is typical of Renaissance art.
Realism and impressionism on one hand, rejects classicism and romanticism, and focuses on the contemporary life and the realities of existence as emphasis is put on daily activities and the pretty bourgeoisie, which were marginalized before. They are a “reaction against pomposity, elegance, sentimentality, and mere prettiness”. Although the poor have always existed within society, it wasn’t until the advent of realism that they became subjects for painting as well as the middle class, who were the dominant force in society. These people were worthy of depiction like the antique heroes or Christian Saints. The boundary between the beautiful and the ugly had been erased by realists, and this comes to show in Courbet’s ‘The Bathers’. This painting received a great deal of criticism from the Salon. ‘The Bathers’ illustrated two very large and egotistical women decadently bathing. The very decadence of the women became Courbet’s prime focus. This is one of Courbet’s well-known non-classical treatments of the nude; it is naturalistic but distant from any idealization. Delacroix criticized these “naked and fat bourgeoisie… buttocks, and meaningless gestures”. In contrast with the perfectly beautiful world of Raphael, Courbet delivers truth and honesty in his world of painting with the dirty feet of the two corpulent ladies.
Realism always captures the present-day reality as it is perceived in a flash of vision, whereas impressionism sought to represent the fleeting moments of street-life or ‘instantaneity’ of loose brushstrokes and saturated coloration. This is evident in the reading ‘Le Figaro’, where Cassatt’s mother, Katherine Cassatt, is dressed in a casual bourgeoisie manner going on with her everyday life, poised and dignified. The portrait is lively and buoyant. The ease of the rising bourgeoisie society is better rendered through the brush works of impressionism. Frederic Bazille said, “Large-scale classical compositions are over. The spectacle of everyday life is more fascinating”, which is exactly what gave rise to the subject matter of the daily activities in bourgeoise life. Impressionist paintings reject the “allegorical, mythological, or history themes” that still prevailed academic art.
Thus, when it comes to the subject matter of paintings, the Renaissance rejects the notion of true reality and focuses on the idealized and mythological world whereas realists and impressionists draw on the day to day lives of ordinary people and their realities.