Realist painters are a direct opposition to the romantic idealists of the early- to mid-19th century in France. Realism developed during the French Revolution, a time of upheaval in social and cultural practices. Where the idealists painted the world they wanted to see, the realists started painting the world as it existed. This led to the development of certain specific characteristics to all realist painter's techniques.
Realism being the antithesis of French Romanticism embraces subjects of everyday life. "The Painter's Studio" by Gustave Courbet looks at an ordinary scene in the studio. "Glaneuses" by Millet depicts peasant women working in the field. Where romanticism idealizes life with young women and flowers, cherubs and satin, realism magnifies the ordinary men and women, work, eating and play.
In looking at realistic, everyday subjects, these painters wanted to remain objective. Romanticists idealized shape and form, representing life as they felt it should exist. "Liberty Leading the People" by Delacroix is an example of French romantic idealism of the period when realism first developed. The mythical figure of lady liberty is boldly leading the French people in revolution. There's bravery, and courage and beauty even in the midst of a bloody battle. Realists paint their scenes as objectively as possible or as real as possible. "The Third-Class Carriage" by Honore Daumier is a contrast to this, depicting two women resting in a shadowy carriage, keeping to themselves and tending to a child's needs.
Realists are among the first group of painters to have begun a direct observation of nature in their painting. They went out into the world to paint and sketch their scenes rather than remain locked up in the studio. Impressionists took incorporated this trait into their art around the same time period.
The actual painting styles of realists differs greatly. Each artist develops a personal style of painting. Most realists stick to the practice of painting reality as cleanly and clearly as possible. This reached an extreme in the 1960s with the development of photorealism, wherein painters use photographs to paint very detailed scenes. One such example is "John's Diner" by John Baeder. The painting is so crisp and detailed that is looks almost like a photograph.
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