Realism and Naturalism
Length: 629 words (1.8 double-spaced pages)
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In Music and Art As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really comparable to it in scope or influence. For one thing, "realism" is not a term strictly applicable to music. There are verismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier created in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since "pure" untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of "program" music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic. In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin1 (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism. In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet2 set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others. In Fiction Realism's most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830. Influence of Realism Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung as Russia and the Americas.
The novel, which had been born out of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old, and that the great bulk of the world's fiction before departed in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.
For all these reasons, Zola strikes us as far more "modern" than Balzac, or even Flaubert. It can be argued that the "default" style of modern narrative is Realist, with the various forms of fantastic narratives which dominated the writing of earlier ages relegated to the margins; and even fantasy is often judged as to its plausibility. Without altogether banishing Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism have had considerable success.