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Realism was a mid-nineteenth century movement which was an attempt to break away from the romantic and idealistic representation of nature. It sought instead an objective, impartial and democratic observation and representation of contemporary life around. The democratic nature of this art made for its subject daily objects, and activities, the life of the city streets, cafés and popular entertainments and populated by ordinary people and social classes previously considered unworthy of representation in high art with an increasing frankness in the treatment of body. The most coherent movement in Realism was in the French painting in the figure of Gustave Courbet who used the word realismé, till now considered derogatory, in his manifesto that accompanied his exhibition in 1885. He shocked the art world by exhibiting large scale paintings of peasants, floor scrapers and other ordinary men.

Since the rise of Modern art, realism has also come to be associated with a stylistic representation that more or less pre-dates post-impressionism. The term has mostly come to be associated with grittiness of choice of subject and a imitative, mimetic representation of it.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial At Ornans, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 124 in × 260 in, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France