Impressionism and realism are different styles, or movements, of painting in French art history. Realism was popular from 1840 to the end of the 1800s in France, while impressionism was a movement influenced by the realist painters at the end of the 1800s. impressionism was avant garde -- considered radical in its day -- and led to post-impressionism and the modern art movement.
Around 1840, the realist movement was popularized in France. This group of painters was political and wanted to convey an objective vision of the working classes. Realism flourished after the French Revolution of 1848, and these artists rejected idealized images of classical and romantic artwork. Realists sought to portray the reality of everyday life. Peasants and humble workers were favored images, and realist painters were influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and naturalist writers, such as Emile Zola and Honore de Balzac.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was one of the leaders of the realist movement. “A Burial at Ornans” and “The Painter’s Studio,” which portrayed ordinary people, were two of his major works from 1849. The groundbreaking paintings were rejected from 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and Courbet created his own one-man exhibition, called Pavillon du Realisme, nearby. Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), another realist painter, painted peasants; Honore Daumier (1808-1879) was a socially conscious painter who painted the hardships of the poor.
Impressionists were influenced by the earlier realist painters and sought to depict modern life in painting. These painters did not have the same political ideals as the realists. They were interested in rejecting all styles of traditional painting and incorporating innovative technology and modern ideas. The impressionists were not a cohesive group but were unified against the Salon, which was the traditional royal academy of artists. The group of artists that became known as the impressionists first exhibited their work together in 1874, independent of the Salon.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a leader in the impressionist movement. He worked on large-scale canvases outside and sought to capture the reality of nature. Influenced by Japanese woodcut block prints, he emphasized the surfaces of his paintings, rather than linear perspectives. Monet used bright colors and short, broken brushstrokes. His “Impression, Sunrise,” exhibited in 1874, was an important early work. Other impressionist painters included Mary Cassatt, who painted images of domestic life, and Edouard Manet, who innovated the use of intense synthetic colors.