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What was the role of the artist in 19th century society?


The role of artist in 19th century society was one of revolution, newfound individualism, freedom, and authenticity. In France, specifically, the role was one of rebellion, in which the emerging artists challenged the government’s standards of what was recognized as good or bad art. The academy proposed that to be a successful artist one must be dedicated to painting, which was historical, narrative, and relayed a moral message. Instead of being shaped by this system, many artists defied traditional painting methods and subject matter, ignoring academic modes of creation.

The artist who epitomized the role of artist in 19th century society was Gustave Courbet who was the first to break the many traditions of high art, establishing new ways for artists to survive. Instead of appealing to the standards of the academy, he took advantage of the rise of literacy and newspaper circulation, creating shocking art that would get his name in print. This made him more famous more quickly than those who went through the traditional procedures of acceptance. He was notorious for his scandalous behavior, opening the door for the artist as public figure and celebrity. In Inventing the Modern Artist, Art and Culture in Guilded Age America, Sarah Burns writes, “By the 1850s the artist was well on the way to becoming a public figure, even a celebrity… in addition to being a producer of aesthetic commodities, he has to become a commodity as well.”

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