By the middle of the 19th century, a growing number of artists questioned the legitimacy of the academy system and its rigid definitions of what subjects and styles were acceptable. Many artists defied academic convention by painting everyday subjects with an emphasis on realism and naturalism.
Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857-1942) grew up and lived on Funen, Denmark’s second largest island. He painted scenes from the everyday lives of the rural poor. In early works such as Worn Out from 1889, Brendekilde worked in a social realist style, depicting the harsh realities of life in the countryside.
In Worn Out, we witness the collapse of an elderly farm worker, exhausted by his labours, as a woman kneels over his body, crying out in anguish. The stony soil and bare landscape suggest unrelenting physical toil. Worn Out was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and also at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was criticised by some of the press for being melodramatic and overly political.
Urbanisation was a major facet of the Industrial Revolution, as rural populations migrated to rapidly growing cities in search of work. Its impact on social norms, and the development of urban culture, were observed and painted by a generation of French artists, encouraged by Charles Baudelaire's celebrated essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863).
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and artists of his generation painted contemporary Parisian life: its cafés, boulevards, pleasure gardens and nightlife. A typical example is Manet’s The Café-Concert in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, which has been described by the museum as follows: "In 1878-79, he [Manet] painted a number of scenes set in the Cabaret de Reichshoffen on the Boulevard Rochechouart, where women on the fringes of society freely intermingled with well-heeled gentlemen. Here, Manet captures the kaleidoscopic pleasures of Parisian nightlife. The figures are crowded into the compact space of the canvas, each one seemingly oblivious of the others. When exhibited at La Vie Moderne gallery in 1880, this work was praised by some for its unflinching realism and criticized by others for its apparent crudeness."
Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes, 1872, is considered one of Manet’s finest portraits. It depicts his sister-in-law, the artist Berthe Morisot, wearing mourning clothes following the death of her father.
Paul Valéry praised this portrait highly in his 1932 foreword to the catalogue of a Manet retrospective held at l’Orangerie, “I do not rank anything in Manet's work higher than a certain portrait of Berthe Morisot dated 1872”.
In Portugal, Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (1857-1929), often referred to as “Columbano”, was also concerned with painting modern subjects. Whilst in Paris in 1881, he had admired and studied the work of Courbet, Manet and Degas. Columbano is celebrated for his portraits of bourgeois Lisbon society. He was a member of the Grupo do Leão (The Lion's Group), a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals who met in a downtown Lisbon restaurant to discuss the aesthetic issues of the day.
Columbano’s large canvas An Amateur Concert was presented at the 1882 Salon in Paris. In the foreground is Columbano’s sister, Maria Augusta Bordalo Pinheiro, who was also an artist, wearing a striking cream silk dress in metallic shades. Also present at the concert are painters Adolfo Greno and, at the piano, Artur Loureiro. The closely grouped figures suggest a sense of musical complicity.