Lots of painters’ work can be called realistic, not least among them Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer, and Chardin. But the art historical movement known as Realism took place in France between 1848 and 1860, more or less, and was a reaction to the excesses of Romanticism and Neoclassicism.
In part, Realism was about showing life as it was, without any squeamishness or conventionality. Caravaggio’s painting of St. Matthew with dirty feet in St. Mattthew and the Angel (1600) was emblematic of this attitude. Another aspect of Realism was political; the French revolution of 1848 gave Realism a class consciousness that is distinctly modern. One of the first social realist paintings was Gustave Courbet’s Stone Breakers (1850), now destroyed.
Courbet was leader of the Realist school. He couldn’t abide either Neoclassical historical scenes or the poetic literary subjects of the Romantics. He painted things like funerals, with everybody there, looking like they really looked. Critics thought it was ugly and subversive, but Courbet wasn’t bothered. I painted like God himself.” he is supposed to have said. “Show me an angel and I will paint one.” he said.
Another great Realist was Honore Daumier (1810-1879), a political cartoonist without peer who once did six months in jail for razzing the Emperor Louis-Philippe in the paper La Caricature in 1831. His many prints drawings, and paintings sometimes documented the human condition with straightforward honesty and feeling, but frequently made fun of the bourgeoisie and corrupt political figures. Daumier invented the lawyer joke in an 1836 lithograph.