Although there remain philosophical questions about the nature of reality, it can be defined as the sum of all that is true or existent and to date, the relationship between art and reality is still one of the most widely discussed subjects in the history of aesthetics. This is even more so in the works of Renaissance painters, realists and impressionists, who each strived to portray the reality of their own times. While some argue that no art can truly give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world, we continue to see the undeniable presence of realistic elements within these individual styles, and the reality of the ever-changing world which it reflects. Focusing on paintings from each style of art, we can see the echoes, parallels and variants of reality both directly through their techniques and visual differences, and indirectly through their underlying conventional notion of the real world developed in the history of its times.
There is no doubt that reality is a constant theme in the works of Renaissance painters, realists and impressionists. Nevertheless, there remains confusion bedeviling the notion of realism due to its ambiguous relationship to the highly problematical concept of reality. Thus, in examining the true meaning of ‘reality’, Linda Nochlin first points out the conventional notion after the time of the Plato that true reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects, we see every day. She refers to the 16th-century theologian, Sebastian Franck, who declared that “all things have two faces… because God decided to oppose himself to the world, to leave appearances to the latter and to take the truth and the essence of things for himself”. In this sense, we can see that the Renaissance painters’ depictions of biblical holy stories accommodate the traditional value of truth and reality more so than the others, as they are presenting what they believe to be the ‘higher reality’.
Living in the 19th century, realists and impressionists certainly understood the meaning of reality in the philosophical tradition. However, they held different beliefs in truth and each presented variants of what they saw as the real world. When Gustave Courbet, the painter who led the realist movement in 19th-century France called himself a realist, he meant the desire to be truthful to ‘visual reality’ and he rejected ideas of a ‘higher reality’. He said apocryphally and with disdain, “I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one”, and declared in 1961 that “an object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting”. Instead of the representation of the sanctified ‘higher truth’, we see in works of the Renaissance, Courbet’s paintings substantiate the existence of human lives as he depicted in particular, the mundane, everyday life of people from the working class. In one of his more renowned paintings ‘The Stone Breakers’, the artist presented an accurate account of the deprivation of the working people by depicting the figures of two peasant workers breaking and removing stones from the roads. This work, which had aroused much criticism after it was exhibited at the Salon, the great annual art exhibition in Paris, demonstrated not only the artist’s concern for the plight of the poor but also his desire to be truthful to ‘visual reality’. In this stance, Courbet proposed that it is no longer questions of the existence or non-existence of God, but of the existence or non-existence of man, and demanded a reassessment of the truth in philosophy and society in the 19th century.
However, by the last quarter of the 19th century, a new value of truth in realist paintings – pictorial truth in flatness was developed. The concept of ‘truth to flatness’ is the notion that no matter how honest or unhackneyed the intention of the artist may be, reality would still be in some way distorted in order to be accommodated to the flat surface of the canvas. The artist’s perception is therefore inevitably conditioned by the physical properties of paint and linseed oil no less than by his knowledge and technique- even by his choice of brush-strokes – in conveying three-dimensional space and form on to a two-dimensional picture plane. This theory suggests that, for a flat painting to stress the existence of three-dimensional forms in a believable space was a way of ‘deception’ and ‘dishonesty’, and it serves as a possible denial of the classification of Renaissance, realism paintings as ‘realistic’ art.
One of the most noticeable characteristics that set the different styles of art apart is its subject matter. With a very close relation to the notion of truth, it is also fascinating and remarkable in examining the historically significant process of how artists from different art periods choose their subjects to represent the philosophy of truth of their time. The Renaissance was a ‘rebirth’ of classical values in art and it is known for its depictions of religious subjects such as the Virgin Mary or Madonna. Although from the perspectives of realists or impressionists, the works from the Renaissance are not seen as truthful as they are ‘not visible’, they are still in a sense, considered as an accurate portrayal of reality. These religious subjects are the truth by which they defined themselves, and for Renaissance painters, religion was viewed as the truth. In a way, the subjects artists choose to depict not only serves as a way for the artist to project their voice and stance, but also provide a lens of how the artist perceives the world.
Courbet’s era was significant as it began the revolutionary liberation of the subject matter. Subjects of the classical depicted in the Renaissance can also be seen in the 19th-century realist paintings. Thus, realism seems to not reject traditional subject matters completely. Instead, what Realism did to these traditional subjects was to tear away the protective covering of conventional artifice from their reality and to represent them in a contemporary environment. The realists opened up new subjects in boundless realms of painting and for the first time in history, subjects such as ordinary people, workmen, peasants, petit bourgeois, or as Edgar Degas mentioned, “every kind of worn object… houses from below, from beneath, up close, as one sees them going by in the streets”, became significant subjects in paintings, as they believed in depicting subjects from the every day, and not a ‘higher reality’.
As a socialist, Courbet had a clear stand in politics during his life, and it naturally engaged his realist thought in art. This is evident in Courbet’s art and his attitude to the ordinary, poor, or people of the working class. In an earlier examination of Courbet’s work ‘The Stone Breakers’, it was drawn that the artist’s intention was to portray the disenfranchisement and class pressure in 19th century France, which caused an outbreak as it was seen as an overthrow, or mockery of the traditional convention depicted. In relation to this, Courbet gave a simple statement in his 1850 letter to Wey: “My sympathies are with the people; I must speak to it directly, draw my knowledge from it, live by it”. For Courbet, the target of truth was a new way to see reality, the circumstances of the people and the relationship between humans and the idea of God. In his work, he substituted the aristocratic class with the ordinary and the poor, the existence of God with the existence of man. And what Courbet also presented in his works, was a strong voice of democratization and socialism that was evident in the middle of 19th century Paris, the ultimate reality in the lens of the artist.
The industrial revolution’s rapid urban development in 19th century France fast saw a significant change in the subject matters in the realms of painting. Taking ‘truth to society’ as their aim, many artists started to represent urban life and the working environment in their artworks. Among them, Honoré Daumier was perhaps the one who most fully investigated the human dimensions of urban life, creating a comedie humaine as rich, variegated and insightful into the new realities of individual and class existence in the contemporary metropolis. In his remarkable contribution to this transformation by representing the visage of 19th-century urban life in Paris: the urban middle class, the theatre, the boulevard, the lawyer, the art-dealer, the Salon visitor, the butcher, the laundress, as well as the railway and its passengers. In reviewing the subject matter of 19th-century art, it is clear there was a revolution that liberated the subject in art. The ever-expanding range of subjects distracted artistic attention from the graceful and fantastical, to ordinary, factual life. And with the change in the artists’ choice of subjects, it seems that the world is changing with it. Thus, all art ever created may be said to reflect the history of its times, the reality in which the artists view themselves in.
Apart from the change in subject matter, what defined each individual art periods were perhaps their taste and aesthetics, which ultimately leads to the examining of the different techniques that artists used in their works. When we look at some of the more renowned works by Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo, Giorgio Vasari and Jan van Eyck, we are invariably struck by the depth and detail of its illusion, the convincing, seemingly limitless, variety of their visual effects. It is evident that Renaissance painters paid much attention to their techniques and the study of the human form in order to achieve pictorial realism in their works. This is evident in one of Titian’s most renowned works ‘Assumption of the Virgin’. In the altar painting, we can see Titian’s attention to the realistic portrayal of human expressions, the gesture of the hands as well as the body posture. His brush strokes were extremely detailed and heavily loaded with color that would create a high visual impact on the viewers. The incredible depth and detail of color, light and texture we see in paintings of the Renaissance suggest the significance of pictorial realism at the time and its close relationship with the Renaissance painters’ value of truth.
In comparison to the detailed and refined style of Renaissance paintings, realists and impressionists developed a much more casual style for their paintings. When looking at the works from realists and impressionists, we can often see casual brush strokes and palette-knife marks in their painting. For example, Courbet would start with big brushes and a palette knife to paint and he would leave the marks on the canvas without embellishing them. This ‘looseness of touch’ approach, developed in 19th-century France, was carried forward by the later realists such as Édouard Manet, who developed a much more casual and careless style with his free unfixed brush strokes. This trend, however, was seen as a moral challenge to the traditions of art where a relaxed touch seems to have been seen as a lack of moral integrity. It was also criticized as the ‘unfinished’ texture of such works would prevent the illusion of the painting, and that instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought it betrays the hand. The loose style of painting adopted by realists and impressionists appears as a daring confrontation to the traditional painting style. However, it can also be interpreted as the gradual change in the value of truth and reality throughout the different art periods.