1   Carls Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 12. 
        2   Gardner, Art Through the Ages, 776. 
        3   Elizabeth Barrett, “The Cry of the Children,” Poetry Foundation, accessed February 23, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43725/the-cry-of-the-children.
        4   Gardner, Art Through the Ages, 779. 

        5   Ibid, 777.  

        6   Robin Gilmour, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890(London: Longman Group UL, 1993), 129.        

        7    Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 882.

        8   George Meredith, “Lucifer in Starlight,” Poetry Foundation, accessed February 23, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44701/lucifer-in-starlight.

        9   Friedrich Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ronald Spiers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), viii. 

        10   Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music, 77.

        11   Ibid., 80.

        12   Friedrich Nietzsche, I:The Case of Wagner, II: Nietzsche Contra Wagner, III: Selected Aphorisms, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici (Edinburgh and London: T.N. Foulis, 1911), 12.  

        13   Nietzsche, I:The Case of Wagner, II: Nietzsche Contra Wagner, III: Selected Aphorisms, 47-48.

        14   Ibid., 45.

        15   Ibid., 18.





Gustave Courbet

A Burial at Ornans (1849-1850)

Recalling the musical titans of the second half of the 19th century (composers like Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), Frans Liszt (1811-1886), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), etc.), it would seem reasonable to assume that the aesthetics of Romanticism remained dominant right up to the end of the century. In these circles, it is true that Romanticism reached great popularity and a rather high standing.1 In art and literature, however, there was a significant shift in priorities and ideals. Though there were different aspects of Romanticism that persisted throughout the century, like certain features of nationalism for example, they were translated in different ways than before, and many others were rejected. Technological and scientific discoveries stirred masses to question the belief systems that had been in place for centuries, and society demanded more rights and better conditions for the working classes. Artists too felt the necessity to question the established forms and ideals in their field and offer a different perspective. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) made this very clear when saying “I have never seen an angel. Show me an angel, and I’ll paint one.”2 Why should importance be given to fictitious figures from mythology? Why should one paint idealized and decadent scenes that do not relate to reality? 


The July Revolution in France in 1830, and the ones across Europe in 1848 revealed the disconnect of the masses of their current situations and their readiness to revolt and be heard. It is no coincidence that these acts of rebellion occurred around the same time that Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) published their Communist Manifesto in 1848. It was the lower and working classes who felt the unjust and negative effects of aristocratic and capitalistic societies. However disillusioning the results of these revolutions might have been for many of the liberal revolutionaries, at least some changes were instated (many were more gradual than others), for instance, the enactment of universal male suffrage in France. 

Many writers felt the need to record the situations they saw in their surroundings. Works like Hard Times, Oliver Twist, and even A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) are examples of this kind of social commentary in Victorian England. In her poetry, Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) also stood up for the rights of the children suffering the unjust conventions of the system, as seen in this excerpt from her “The Cry of the Children”:


Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers, 

Ere the sorrow comes with years ? 

They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, — 

And that cannot stop their tears. 

The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;

The young birds are chirping in the nest ; 

The young fawns are playing with the shadows ; 

The young flowers are blowing toward the west— 

But the young, young children, O my brothers, 

They are weeping bitterly ! 

They are weeping in the playtime of the others, 

In the country of the free. 


Do you question the young children in the sorrow, 

Why their tears are falling so ? 

The old man may weep for his to-morrow 

Which is lost in Long Ago — 

The old tree is leafless in the forest — 

The old year is ending in the frost — 

The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest — 

The old hope is hardest to be lost : 

But the young, young children, O my brothers, 

Do you ask them why they stand 

Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers, 

In our happy Fatherland ?3 




Honoré Daumier 

Third-Class Carriage (1864)







A novel is a mirror walking along a main road. 


                                                                             - Stendhal 





In painting, portraying reality the way it really was and filling the canvas with social commentary became a significant part of the artistic language. Honoré Daumier’s (1808-1879) Third-Class Carriage (Figure 9) is a classic example of this shift in aesthetic. No longer is the subject a well-known and prominent figure but an anonymous group of the lower-class population, letting audiences in to the “unrehearsed details of human existence from the continuum of ordinary life.”4 Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (Figure 10) is another piece that deviated from the accepted norms, depicting a funeral on a massive scale (10 by 22 feet) that, according to the art critic, Jules-François-Félix Husson Champfleury, could have represented any funeral of any little town.5 A painting of that scale should have been reserved for the death of an emperor or the victory of a battle, not a commonplace funeral of an unknown family in an unknown place.


Equally consequential to these social affairs was Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859)His theories on human evolution placed man, as A.E. Housman (1859-1936) voiced, “in the position of one who has been reared from his cradle as the child of a noble race and the heir to great possessions, and who finds at his coming of age he has been deceived alike as to his origin and his expectations.”6 It is difficult for us now in 2020, who have been raised in a digital age and have acquired a relatively advanced understanding our world, to understand what this means. A great deal of this acquired knowledge had tremendous consequences for the power of the church and also instigated the existential sentiments that “reduced mankind even further into nothingness.”George Merediths's (1828-1909) poem, “Lucifer in Starlight,” expresses that angst and confusion at a world that has seen much change:


                On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose. 

                Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend 

                Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,   

                Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose. 

                Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those. 

                And now upon his western wing he leaned, 

                Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened, 

                Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows. 

                Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars 

                With memory of the old revolt from Awe, 

                He reached a middle height, and at the stars, 

                Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. 

                Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, 

                The army of unalterable law.8 


The pessimism and anti-idealism that pervaded the second half of the 19th century was highly influenced by the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who believed that the “very nature of the universe precluded the possibility of any continuing human happiness.”9 For him, the only “respite from the continual flux and frustration” humans had lied in the arts. Because music is the art form that least resembles the “world of appearance[s],” he considered it a way of unconsciously “apprehending the world in a manner akin to philosophical contemplation.”10 In his early years, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was greatly inspired by the writings of Schopenhauer, though he came to turn his back on this pessimistic outlook later in his career.11 He instead took a stance against the fashion of historicism and metaphysics; in art, he also advocated against decadence and all forms of corruption.12 His adoration of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) one day turned to aversion, when realizing his endless melodies were filled with deceit and promises that were never kept:


                Wagner is a seducer on a grand scale. There is nothing exhausted, nothing effete, nothing

                dangerous to life, nothing that slanders the world in the realm of spirit, which has not secretly

                found shelter in his art, he conceals the blackest obscurantism in the luminous orbs of the ideal.

                He flatters every nihilistic (Buddhistic) instinct and togs it out in music; he flatters every form of

                Christianity, every religious expression of decadence. He that hath ears to hear let him hear:

                everything that has ever grown out of the soil of impoverished life, the whole counterfeit coinage

                of the transcendental and of a Beyond found its most sublime advocate in Wagner's art, not in

                formulæ (Wagner is too clever to use formulæ), but in the persuasion of the senses which in their

                turn makes the spirit weary and morbid.13


Leaving behind all romanticism, with its promises and deceptiveidealism, Nietzsche strongly advocated that music “should not become an art of lying.”14 In his eyes, the opera Carmen by George Bizet (1838-1875) became his form of the ideal. Having supposedly seen the opera 20 times, he was extremely captivated by its sense of organization, richness, and completeness.15



In the visual arts, paintings like Édouard Manet’s (1832-1883) Olympia (Figure 11) represented that impulse to present unidealized forms. Though Olympia clearly refers to the Titian’s (1490-1576) Venere di Urbino and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La grand odalisque and, Olympia is no Venus. She lays on her bed, blatantly looking at her observers, making them aware that they are valuing her for her beauty and nakedness. She does pretend to be a god, who traditionally depicted as nudes, but instead embraces her character as a prostitute.



Édouard Manet

Olympia (1863)