Just as Romanticism was a break away from the disciplines imposed on the artist by scientific logic, the Realist movement is a reaction to the excesses of Romanticism. Some of the most prominent examples of realist art are to be found in literature and painting. While Romanticism espoused fantasy and magic over fact, Realism brought the focus back on actual existing conditions. These conditions could either be in the realm of human relations, political developments or economic realities. A pioneer of the Realist genre in literature was Gustave Flaubert, whose masterpiece Madame Bovary, stands for high-craftsmanship in the genre. Stendhal is another writer who contributed majorly to the Realist movement in literature. Stendhal’s novel Red and Black is often cited to be an early successful attempt at the realist genre. The novel stood out for its political and social comment, beyond the psychological probing that is commonly associated with the genre. (West 1996)
Simultaneously, in Great Britain, Charles Dickens was making great strides in bringing realist literature to the general reader. Subsequent generation of English literary luminaries such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad explored and experimented further with realism. Due to the pre-eminence given to human psychology and character development within the plot, realism is a bedfellow with philosophical discourse. When we look at citations of scholarly publications in either discipline we find substantial cross-referencing. This underscores the view that Realist art instructed and shaped philosophical discourse of the day. In other words, beyond being merely a mode of artistic expression, Realism in literature contained a certain philosophy of life. (West 1996) By bringing art to the confines of verifiable events and observable phenomena, Realist literature is also at once a system of philosophy. Realist fiction can be seen as a particular understanding of human nature, in terms of our aspirations and joys and sorrows. It is also a bold statement in that it forced meaning and beauty to be found within the limits of the plausible.
Honore Balzac was another exponent of Realism. His works brought attention to all facets of society, including the political and economic dimensions. This made his oeuvre a comprehensive chronicle of the times. Balzac’s novels are also historically informed, albeit with a heavy focus on recent history leading up to prevailing social, economic and political conditions. In this sense, Balzac’s literature was also philosophical treatises. While eschewing any direct adoption of philosophical systems of thought, his works showcased a subtle understated humanism. (West 1996)
Realist art as a political document is of particular salience. This is because artistic conventions had held a negative bias toward subjects such as poverty and squalor. By portraying the lives of the working classes with attendant misery, scarcity and disease, realist literature ventured on a new path. To the surprise of early detractors, the value of such literature came to be appreciated by readers and critics alike. Indeed, the birth of the social realist genre in literature in the 19th century opened up new possibilities for philosophy as well. What made this new openness possible is the literature’s no holds barred engagement with social realities. (Benton & Diyanni 2011) Good illustrations of this genre are Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme.
In conclusion, the differences between these various époques of art are fairly marked. The transition from heavy rationalism to romanticism was inspired by the renewed approval of fantasy and excess in human affairs. Likewise, the Realist movement that succeeded Romanticism was due to the recognition of the weight of fact over fantasy. It is hard to argue that any one era was historically more important than the other. Each brought a fresh set of ideas and new perspectives to art. Each era had left behind a considerable body of classic works of art, whose merit and relevance refuses to fade. Their longevity speaks of their universality within the constraints of the specific milieu they inhabited.