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Session 1: Modernity and Realism

The Modern Genius: Art and Culture in the 19th Century
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Modernity and Realism
Modernity and Realism

Becoming Modern

Learning Objectives:

1.    To identify and explain the causes of contention between the Academy and the avant-garde in the mid-19th century.
2.    To identify and explain the conditions for being modern in Europe in both art and culture.
3.    To identify and explain the changes in style and content that Realist artists promoted as important for a modern society.

Glossary of Terms:

Academic art: This identifies the kinds of fine art (genres, styles, methods of production) that dominated Europe from the 17th century.  This was mainstream art by the 19th century.

Academy: These were the national institutions like the Royal Academy in England and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France that most European countries founded beginning in the 17th century.  Academies trained the most talented artists, provided the best exhibition venues, and controlled the standards for fine art. Artists from these academies were considered the best and most talented of their countries.

Avant-garde: This term is used to designate artists who identified with new approaches to art making (style or topic) and in doing so challenged the status quo established by the academy.

Flâneur: French term used by Baudelaire to describe his ideal modern painter.  A flâneur was an urbane man who moved through the city noticing everything, but remaining slightly aloof.

Formalism: A way of evaluating art that focuses on formal elements like line, color, medium and their relationship to style in order to determine the excellence of a work of art.  It is one of the oldest methods of evaluating art, but like any method, can only answer the questions that it poses.

Historiography: The study of how a field or a discipline, like Art History, develops and institutionalizes its methods, practices and theories.

Romanticism: An academic approach to art that was characterized by emotion, imagination and artistic subjectivity.  Romanticism dominated Europe during the first half of the 19th century in art, music and literature.

Modernity 1850-1950 C.E.

What does it mean to be modern?

Learning about modern art means much more than just looking at paintings and sculptures, and talking about style. To understand how and why dramatic changes in art took place during this time period, we need  to understand what is meant by modern and the modern world ...

•    Why did these changes occur in Europe and not China or Peru?
•    What kinds of ideas, philosophies, and events changed the way people thought?
•    What did they do? (That includes making art.)

We are going to talk about art, but also about history, science, design… definitely about popular culture because art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Artists lived in that same modern world so don’t picture them closeted in a dusty studio sealed off from what was happening. What they thought and made was often a response or a challenge, a critique or a celebration of modernity.


It is important to know what people valued about art, and why institutions like academies were so powerful. We live in a world of rapid change with lots of different kinds of art happening at the same time so it may be hard at first to understand why most people living in a modern country in the 19th century were still so resistant to modern art.

•    What makes Modern Art so different?

•    Why were concerns like obvious brushstrokes or skewed perspective so threatening?

•    Why couldn’t there be different definitions of good art?

To answer those questions, we need to look at the first modern movement - Realism.


Let's now explore the ways that early Realist painters challenged the Academy conventions for fine art.  In particular, I will focus on Gustave Courbet ( who wrote the first manifesto about modern art.

Courbet’s ideas about what modern painters should and shouldn’t do dramatically influenced artists who were interested in new subjects and new approaches to art.


In the middle of the 19th century the art world was smaller and more controlled. Courbet’s manifesto and public exhibitions were the only really effective way to get the attention of the audience and critics for fine art. However, the visual culture of the early modern world was influenced by one more critical factor and that was the development of photography.

Photographs, made by a machine…now that was really modern!  In the next module we’ll look at the ways that photography changed the way people thought about reality.


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