The Language of the Feelings
If a painter wished to address himself to the vast unsophisticated public, an easy solution seemed to be afforded by the realistic anecdote, a favorite type of art in early nineteenth-century England and France, as represented by the pictures of Wilkie in England and later of Meissonier in France. The small size of these paintings made them suitable for middle-class homes, and all tell legible stories with which an ordinary person could feel some familiarity, either through personal experience of life in home, city or country, or through news stories of adventures on the high seas and battlefields. These episodes were painted as the spectator thought he might really see events with his own eyes.
Realistic anecdotal art combined an emotional or psychological appeal with its illustrational interest in such works as Rippingville's painting of 1819, The Post Office, whose subject was "the delivery of Letters and Newspapers at the Post Office and the various impressions on the minds of those who peruse them."1 Of course, easy communicability is not necessarily a sign of superficiality, as we can see in the works of Hogarth and Chardin, of David who was acquainted with Mengs' doctrine that the beautiful appeals to the majority, and of Goya and Daumier, Constable and Corot. In Courbet, Realism even became epic in its glorification of the familiar.
Often "realistic" paintings united democratic intent and high purpose. The idealistic and learned Ruskin praised Wilkie's art "because it touches passions which all feel and expresses truths which we can recognize."2 But occasionally the purpose of some realistic art seemed too low. Constable disliked the paintings of the seventeenth-century Dutch and Germans, who were enjoying a revival. Of these he wrote, "With them dignity of subject never excluded meanness, and the wretched material introduced into their historical pictures could have led to nothing, or worse than nothing, impressive."3