A Very Short History of Art: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Realism, and Impressionism

1 Camille Corot A View Near Volterra 1838
Camille Corot, ‘A View Near Volterra’, 1838. Neither Romantic nor Realist, but merging aspects of both, this view is a real one, based on sketches Corot made on a visit to Italy a decade before.

From the early Christian period to the Rococo, the story of European art is one of evolution: the Gothic art of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries blossomed into the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth, which developed into the elaborate Baroque of the seventeenth century, which reached the furthest extent of its development in the Rococo of the early eighteenth. Only at that point did a conscious disconnection from the immediately preceding style occur, first in the opposition of Neoclassicism to the principles of the Rococo, and then in the rebellion of Romanticism against the principles of Neoclassicism.

But as we move into the nineteenth century, something different happens. For the first time, rather than a single, unified artistic school or a pair of opposing schools we encounter the beginnings of a plurality of distinct artistic styles. These styles sprang from different, sometimes conflicting, artistic philosophies, but they coexisted alongside one another, and in doing so arguably laid the groundwork for the endless variation in artistic expression which would be produced by the artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

2 PRB John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2
Sir John Everett Millias, ‘Ophelia’, 1851-52

There is something charmingly adolescent in the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were active in Britain between the 1840s and the 1880s, from their initial conception as a ‘secret brotherhood’ to their noisy rejection of all art from Raphael onwards (hence ‘Pre-Raphaelite’) to their bright palates and their preoccupation with legend, mysticism, and sometimes heavy-handed religious symbolism. Their art is lush, beautiful, and provides an incongruous merging of obsessive hyper-realism (Millais, for example, spent months standing in a field getting the river in ‘Ophelia’ just right, then returned home to London where he had his young model, Elizabeth Siddal, lie fully clothed in a cold bathtub for hours in the middle of winter. She caught a chill and her irate father sent Millais a doctor’s bill for £50, although it seems he eventually settled for less), with obvious fantasy. So appealing, indeed, is their art that its influence remains evident today in the fantasy works of contemporary artists like Mary Baxter St. Clair.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were not the only artists in the 19th century to embrace the custom of painting en plein air (in the open); it was pioneered in the early decades of the century by French artists like Charles Daubigny (1808-79) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), facilitated by the new invention of metal storage tubes for oil paints which not only lengthened their shelf-life but also made them easily transportable. It was these innovations which paved the way for both Realism and Impressionism.

5 Gustave Courbet Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet 1854
Gustave Courbet, ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet’, 1854

One of the great Realists was the self-taught artist Gustave Courbet (1819-98), whose ego appears to have been every bit as healthy as Durer’s, more than three hundred years before. He was robust in his assertion that artists should paint only “real and existing things” and, as he knew himself to be a ‘real and existing thing’, he included himself in a number of his works, including the famous ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet’.

6 Jean-Francois Milet, ‘The Gleaners’, 1857
Jean-Francois Milet, ‘The Gleaners’, 1857

Another group of Realists, the Barbizon School, made themselves at home in the village of Barbizon on the outskirts of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where they painted landscapes, sometimes populated with rural peasants as in Jean-Francois Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’. Himself the son of farm labourers, it would be a mistake to think that Millet set out to romanticise the harsh realities and hard labour of rural life.

In sculpture, too, a desire for greater realism influenced the most famous sculptor since Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), who used to have his models walk nude around his studio in order to ensure that his works were as true to life as possible.

7 Edouard Manet Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe 1863
Edouard Manet, ‘Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe’, 1863

And then there is Edouard Manet (1832-83), who seems to be classed as an Impressionist mainly because 1/ he exhibited with them, and 2/ it isn’t entirely clear where else we should stick him. But his most famous painting, ‘Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe’, is a one-of-a-kind. There is Realism in the sunlight slanting through the trees and the three models in the foreground, but why is the woman naked? Why does the other woman, in the background, appear to be both out of proportion to the others and unaware of their presence? Why do the two men seem to be so completely oblivious to the presence of a naked woman at their picnic? (from the expression on her face, it could be that she’s wondering the same thing as she breaks the fourth wall to stare out at the viewer). And Manet himself was a respectable fellow who seemed mystified by all the fuss.

Manet’s later work, like the paintings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), has the softer edges and play of light that is associated with Impressionism, but where Manet’s models stare out at the viewer there is something almost voyeuristic about much of Degas’ work, which gives the impression of having been painted without the models’ knowledge. Like Manet, Degas exhibited with the Impressionists, but he considered himself to be a Classicist, and he stuck mainly to indoor settings with people rather than the outdoor settings and landscape scenes which characterised the work of the most famous Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

10 Monet Impression Sunrise 1872
Monet, ‘Impression: Sunrise’, 1872

This was a very different kind of art from that which had preceded it, art with a rough, unfinished, and above all thoroughly modern appearance, and perhaps because of this these and other artists initially had trouble exhibiting their work. Since 1667 French artists had displayed their work in the Paris Salon, which for over a hundred years (1748-1890) was quite possibly the greatest annual/biennial art event in the Western world – and which was controlled by the artistic Establishment in the form of the Academie des Beaux-Artes. In 1863 the Academie turned down over 4,000 works submitted for the Salon, and Napoleon III ordered an alternative: the Salon de Refuses (basically ‘The Rejects Show’). The idea that an artist didn’t have to display his (or, just sometimes, her) art in the official Salon quickly caught on, and in 1874 a group of artists including Monet, Degas, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and woman artist Berthe Morisot organised an exhibition which included a painting by Monet entitled ‘Impression: Sunrise’. It was the journalist Louis Leroy who took this title and – intending it as an insult – turned it into the name which would be attached to the entire movement.

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Like English artist J. M. W. Turner a generation before, the Impressionists were preoccupied with the observed effects of light and movement. Monet painted a series of pictured of Rouen Cathedral which became a study in the effects of different types and levels of light on the façade of that building. One can almost hear the rustle of the breeze through the grasses in Alfred Sisley’s ‘Meadow’, or the chatter and the chink of glasswear in Renoir’s ‘The Luncheon of the Boating Party’. The Age of Impressionism was, often literally, golden, but all too brief. A new century was coming, bringing with it new ideas and, from 1914, a horrific war which would sweep such peaceful golden visions away forever.

5 thoughts on “A Very Short History of Art: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Realism, and Impressionism

  1. Well done for managing to condense such a minefield of information in one post! It would have taken me years! Such and important piece of British art history. I love the biographies and history of the Pre-Raphaelites more than I like their work. I am in the middle of a campaign to make sure that a building that Millais lodged at in Southampton (England) can retain its plaque as it is being converted into a block of student flats. Did you ever see the TV series about the Brotherhood about 6-7 years ago called the Desperate Romantics starring Aidan Turner as Dante Gabriel Rossetti? Also waiting to see the film Effie about Effie Gray.


  2. Monet’s “Impression: Soleil levant” is my all-time favourite piece of art! As a student I once travelled from Munich to Paris with sole idea to contemplate that painting for an afternoon after it had been returned to the Musée Marmottant. That must have been in the summer of 1991 or 1992.


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