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Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

January 31, 2021

Realism was an art movement that emerged in the mid-19th century in France as a reaction against Romanticism. The Realists sought to depict the world as it really was, without the idealization that had characterized previous art movements. They believed that art should not only entertain but also educate and uplift the viewer, and that this goal could best be achieved by depicting reality in its most unflinching and truthful form. Realist artists often portrayed the lives of ordinary people, especially the working class, and were interested in the social implications of their subjects.

Realism became popular in other parts of Europe and the United States in the second half of the 19th century. Some of the major Realist artists include Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, and Honore Daumier, who all created works that depicted the lives of ordinary people, including peasants, laborers, and even beggars. Although the movement declined in the late 19th century, its influence can still be seen in modern art, particularly in the Social Realism of the early 20th century and the documentary photography of the mid-20th century.

The movement is characterized by its focus on depicting real life and representing the world around us as truthfully and accurately as possible. Realism artists sought to capture everyday life and portray it in their art, often choosing ordinary subjects such as landscapes, portraits, and still life paintings.

Realism also emphasized the use of light and color in a way that was true to life. Artists paid special attention to the way light fell on objects and how that affected the colors and shadows they created. They also focused on creating depth and perspective by carefully organizing the composition of their paintings, using techniques like linear perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Realism, therefore, emphasized the importance of capturing the details and nuances of the real world in a way that was truthful and objective.

Let's survey some interesting artworks and prominent artists from this movement...

The Flute Concert, 1852 by Adolph Menzel

The Flute Concert aka 'Frederick the Great Playing the Flute at Sanssouci' is an 1852 oil on canvas history painting by the great German painter Adolph Menzel (Fig 1). It depicts Frederick the Great, a Prussian king and military leader who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia from 1740 until 1786. In the painting we see him playing the flute at an evening concert at Sanssouci which is now a historical building in Potsdam, near Berlin, which was built as Frederick's summer palace and designed in the Rococo style of architecture. The word 'Sanssouci' literally means 'Free of Care'. 

The artist, Menzel, was one of the most popular and important Realist painters of the 19th century. His works form an important record of life in Prussia at the time, especially the life of Frederick the Great. 

The painting, executed in Baroque and realist style, depicts a musical soirée being held at the Palace. The moment captured is that of a piece of music being played by King Frederick himself with his flute on the center stage. He is surrounded by his allies and the elite figures of Prussia at the time. In front of him sits his chamber ensemble and to his rear an audience of dignitaries and noble ladies. The focus of the work is not on the music but rather on Frederick and the ambience created by the interior design, the furniture, the chandelier and candlelight and the ladies' elaborate dresses.

This work of art is now housed in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany.


Fig 1. Frederick the Great Playing the Flute at Sanssouci, 1852
Medium: oil on canvas, Dimensions: 142 cm × 205 cm (56 in × 81 in), Location: Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Middle: Frederick the Great; far right: Johann Joachim Quantz, the king's flute teacher; to his left with a violin and wearing dark clothing: Franz Benda; leftmost in the foreground: Gustav Adolf von Gotter; behind him: Jakob Friedrich von Bielfeld; behind him, looking at the ceiling: Pierre Louis Maupertuis; in the background, sitting on a pink sofa: Wilhelmine of Bayreuth; on her right: Amalie of Prussia with a maid of honor; behind them, Carl Heinrich Graun; the elderly lady behind the music stand: Sophie Caroline; behind her: Egmont of Chasot; at the harpsichord: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Adolph von Menzel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Louis Béroud

You’ve probably heard of French artist Louis Béroud, though maybe not because of his work; his name isn’t mentioned among the great painters of the late 19th century. His paintings –often of other painters practicing in the Musée du Louvre or of the grand space itself– are certainly beautiful, rich in detail, and an interesting mixture of late Realism with some early Impressionist touches, a direct result of the era in which he painted. Even still, you might not have even been able to identify one of his paintings just by sight, the way you can with, say, a Monet, and his pieces don’t make the headlines if they’re brought to auction.

But if you’ve ever heard of the (entirely true) theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, then you’re familiar with Béroud. For it was Béroud who, on the morning of August 22, 1911, alerted the guard that La Jaconde was missing. Béroud had arrived at the museum with his easel and paintbox, ready to continue work on a study of the Mona Lisa, only to find an empty space on the wall of the Salon Carré where painting should have hung. When he informed a guard, he was told the painting was likely upstairs being photographed or for some light frame preservation. Béroud waited several hours but at 11am, having grown impatient, suggested the guard check upstairs in the photography department himself. It was only then that the museum realized what had happened. It would be two and a half years, with a wild goose chase across France and Italy, fake identities, and forgeries sold and shipping across the Atlantic, before Mona was returned to her rightful place at the Louvre.

Because of his connection to what is perhaps the most famous heist in history, little focus has been paid to Béroud’s work as a painter over the years, which is a shame. Here are some of his works...

Ludwig Johann Passini

Ludwig Johann Passini, Vienna, Austria 🇦🇹
Anna Passini on the Balcony of the Palazzo Priuli in Venice, 1866 🇮🇹

Ludwig Johann Passini was an Austrian narrative and genre painter in the Realism style. He was also a printmaker. Between 1853-1870 Passini lived in Rome, where his work became focused on the human figure set against architectural and interior elements, and within narrative themes. Here we see his Anna Passini on the Balcony of the Palazzo Priuli in Venice (Fig 7) from 1866.


Fig 7. Anna Passini auf dem Balkon des Palazzo Priuli in Venedig, circa 1866
Ludwig Passini, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite au Sabbat (1912) by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929) was one of the leading French artists of the naturalist school. His portrait of 'Marguerite on the Sabbath' (Fig 8) is inspired by an episode in the legend of 'Faust' . Faust, also called Faustus or Doctor Faustus, is the hero in some of the most durable legends in Western folklore and literature. In the character's tales we find the story of a German necromancer, or astrologer, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. In Dagnan-Bouveret's painting we see a character from one such tale.

We see Marguerite, in despair at having been seduced by Faust, killed the child born of their union and is about to put an end to her days. But she is thrown into prison. Faust, who has abandoned the young woman to turn to other pleasures, attends a Sabbath with Mephistopheles. Suddenly, emerging from the fires of hell, he had an apparition: Marguerite, pale as a specter, stands up, her child dead in her arms. This vision will lead him to repentance..

Dagnan-Bouveret fixed this moment while remaining very close to the text of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was a German poet, playwright, and novelist that relayed folklore stories. The model that poses for this painting is Suzanne Delvé, she was an actress in vogue in the interwar period.


Fig 8. Marguerite au Sabbat, 1911
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gleaners (1857)  by Jean-François Millet

The 1857 painting Gleaners (Fig 9) is a masterpiece by the French artist Jean-François Millet. The painting depicts three young women as gleaners ("gleaners" gather small amounts of grain or other produce left behind by regular harvesters) who work in a cornfield, gleaning the remaining grain after an autumn harvest. The women are shown in beautiful and intricate detail, and the painting captures the natural beauty and serenity of the countryside.

The women are dressed in typical rural attire, with long dresses and headscarves, and they are depicted in various poses as they go about their work. They are shown picking out grain, bundling sheaves, and carrying basket pouches.

The painting is notable for its use of light and shadow, with the warm glow of what appears to be a setting sun, casting a golden light over the women and the surrounding landscape. The painting has also been praised for its realism and attention to detail, with Millet taking great care to accurately portray the rural setting and the way in which the women go about their work.

This artwork was received with mixed reactions when it was first exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1857. Some critics praised the painting's realism and thought it was a sympathetic portrait of the struggling poor. Others criticized the painting for its portrayal of poverty and raised concerns about the social and political implications of such a depiction.

Despite the initial criticism, the painting has become a beloved and iconic work of art and an influential symbol of the 19th-century social realism movement. It continues to inspire artists and activists who seek to shed light on the struggles of the working class and to promote social justice.

Overall, from what we can gleam from Gleaners is it remains a beautiful and evocative painting that captures a moment of everyday life in the English countryside, and remains a beloved work of art to this day.


Fig 9. Gleaners, 1857, by Jean-François Millet,
oil on canvas, 83.6 x 111 cm (33 x 4334 in), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Jean-François Millet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Louis Béroud

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