Painting is inherently an expressive medium, so it is inevitable that social and cultural forces, affecting the individual artist, also influence the work. This typically translates to movements dominating over certain periods of time when the cultural forces hold the greatest sway. Consequently, the art of various movements reflects significant differences, even as they share the same foundation of larger influence at the time. This duality of similarity and contrast may be seen in examining Orientalism, Realism, and Post-Impressionism. These movements powerfully reflect distinctive social and aesthetic agents in place, as each treats subject matter accordingly. In Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer, Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers and Burial at Ornans, and George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Orientalism, Realism, and Post-Impressionism are defined through the artists’ varied degrees of dependence upon both subject and style.
Orientalism is unique among movements in that it inherently reflects a kind of acquisitive ambition, as this was a Western style embracing Eastern culture as something of a strange and compelling possession (Author date). Here, subject and style are virtually one, an aspect removed from other movements. The “Orient” is the entire reason for the painting, whereas other styles employ subject more as an instrument. The Snake Charmer nonetheless echoes Realism, and for the simple reason that the import or meaning relies solely on the unknown quality of the subject; as the scene is so unusual to Western eyes of the day, accuracy is the chief ambition. Gerome does not sensationalize his subject, relying instead on the fascination of the Eastern practice itself. In that era, simply, a nude boy handling a snake before an assembly of seemingly drugged potentates was certainly striking enough, and it may be argued that Orientalism existed as a movement devoted only to the appeal of the foreign.
Conversely, the Realism of Courbet is a style necessary to convey an idea, rather than merely capture a thing intrinsically compelling. The incentives behind Realism were, in a word, emphatic, as the movement was intended to counter bourgeois culture and embody a more socialist aesthetic (Author page). There is no escaping that The Stone Breakers represents a departure from elitist subjects to the ordinary, which in turn reflects a socialist agenda. By way of statement, in fact, Courbet hides the faces of his two men, promoting the socialist ideology of the group as paramount. Then, and interestingly, there is some lyricism in this Realism. The tones are soft, the landscape is bucolic and attractive, and the men are clearly strong, all indicating a kind of glorification of the worker. Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is a more stark and unromantic image, yet one that may be said to be equally politically inspired; while the mourners are ordinary people, there is no mistaking the extravagance of the priest’s dress or the elevation of the crucifix, factors that emphasize the common people’s environment of ritual. Unlike the realistic style of Orientalism, this is Realism employed to extract meaning from the subjects, rather than only present.
With Post-Impressionism, actual agenda shifts and subject is dependent upon style, which represents a definitive departure from any type of Realism. This is a movement in which technique dictates, as exemplified by Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. If Orientalism and Realism rely on subject either to provide or emphasize meaning, Seurat employs it as a kind of template. The ordinary, as in a collection of citizens enjoying a park, is all that is needed to challenge the basic functions of sight and perception. Put another way, it is likely that Courbet would have presented Seurat’s scene to condemn a bourgeois gathering, and Seurat’s motive is more purely aesthetic. Seurat preferred “divisionalism” rather than “pointillism” to describe his approach (Author page), the technique of juxtaposing points of color to create in the mind other colors, and this process then leaves meaning entirely to the viewer.
No matter the movement, artists invariably select subject to accomplish an end. In Orientalism, subject is end unto itself, abetted by realistic technique. In Realism, as in Courbet’s work, social agendas are promoted through clear imagery and a choice of the ordinary as subject. With Seurat and Post-Impressionism, perception, sand perception utterly “subjective,” is the goal and subject exists only as the instrument for the process. Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer, Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers and Burial at Ornans, and George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte reveal how Orientalism, Realism, and Post-Impressionism are defined through the artists’ varied degrees of dependence upon both subject and style.