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From Realism to Symbolism

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"From Realism to Symbolism, 1860-1900"

Robert Rosenblum
Published in 2005
7 pages, fully illustrated

Robert Rosenblum's essay takes a look at the shift in Russian art from visible, factual depictions to invisible expressions or feelings. Using Western European portrait, landscape, and religious paintings as a basis for comparison, Rosenblum identifies the technical skills displayed by artists such as Nikolai Ge, Vasily Vereshchagin, and Mikhail Vrubel.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, strange shadows began to pervade the look and feel of art. In both Eastern and Western Europe, as well as on the other side of the Atlantic, the impulse to explore territories that had been invisible to the majority of mid-nineteenth century artists—who wanted to paint only what the eye could see—kept growing. Slowly, the visible, material world began to fade from sight in overt and covert ways. Portraits, instead of securing the sitters' places in professional or family communities, started to probe more private feelings. Landscapes, rather than recording welcoming springtime grass and trees dappled with cheerful sunlight, gravitated toward a no-man's-land, depicting mysterious, unpopulated terrains remote from both urban and rural areas. Even still lifes, whether of food or flowers, began to transcend their domestic confines and disclose unexpected mysteries. As for narrative, the facts of contemporary life, flourishing in countless genre paintings of the pleasures and tribulations of workers and families, could be replaced by efforts to see, behind closed eyes, imaginative and spiritual worlds that might re-create the supernatural events of the Bible or the long-buried past, whether of historical fact or legend. In the traditional accounts of Western art, this evolution is usually defined by two "isms," Realism and Symbolism.

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