Science, Art, Religion & Philosophy in the Mid to Late 1800s & Early 1900s

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  • 0:24 Marxism
  • 1:21 Science
  • 4:02 Artistic Realism
  • 4:53 Philosophy
  • 5:36 Religion
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a period of advances in scientific discovery, philosophy, religion, and artistic expression. In this lesson, learn about the influential ideas, individuals, and movements of the time.


From the middle of the 1800s to the early 1900s, many influential changes occurred. Along with ideological changes brought about by the ideas of Marxism, changes in science and religion were shifting the balance of society. Changes in artistic style also mirrored a rejection of old ideas and traditions.

  • 1848 - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write The Communist Manifesto
  • 1850 - Artistic Realism becomes dominant
  • 1859 - Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection
  • 1871 - Darwin publishes The Descent of Man
  • 1872 - Nietzsche publishes his first book The Birth of Tragedy
  • 1898 - The Curies discover that the element radium gives off waves of radiation
  • 1905 - Einstein publishes his theory of relativity


Not everyone was pleased with the changes of industrialized wage labor. In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto.

Within this writing, the authors advocated that a revolution could change society. They urged, 'WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!' Among the many influential ideas put forth in the 'Manifesto' was the notion that the history of society was the history of class struggle. According to Marx and Engels, history can be viewed as a constant conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed. The latest such struggle was that of the bourgeoisie, or middle class employer, versus the employee. Marx and Engels wrote that the eventual victor would be the proletariat, or industrial working class. After the conflict, the industrial workers would overthrow their employers and reorder society. The authors believed that this would ultimately lead to a classless society and spur advances in science and technology that would make society better for all.


Advances in science, particularly during the 19th century, changed the way people viewed the world. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In his book, he presented his idea of natural selection. In other words, he believed that plants and animals evolved over time through organic evolution. According to this theory, animals produced more offspring than could survive. The offspring that survived did so because they possessed traits that gave them the best chance for survival. We can understand this better by picturing two birds. One bird has bright yellow feathers that make it clearly visible, while the other has brown feathers that easily blend in with tree bark. Which bird will likely be found by any predators? It would probably be the yellow one. So according to Darwin, the desirable trait of the brown feathers would continue to be produced because that bird survived to have offspring. This idea is also known as the survival of the fittest.

Darwin applied his theory to humans in his 1871 publication, The Descent of Man. His ideas were extremely controversial at the time because they made humans ordinary products of nature rather than special beings. His work was eventually accepted by the scientific community.

In another important breakthrough, scientists Pierre and Marie Curie discovered that the element radium emitted radiation from within the atom itself in 1898. According to this research, atoms were not simply hard material but microscopic worlds containing subatomic particles.

Albert Einstein, who also lived during this period, has been considered one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century. However, many may have heard a popular story that he failed in high school. In fact, Einstein was an excellent student throughout his high school career. He was actually far ahead of other students in mathematics. So, where did this idea come from? Well, in 1895, Einstein took an entrance exam for the Federal Polytechnic School in Switzerland. At just 16 years old, two years younger than other applicants, he excelled in the physics and math portions but failed the subjects that were not related to science.

In 1905, Einstein published The Electro-Dynamics of Moving Bodies, which contained his theory of relativity. According to this theory, space and time are not absolute, but depend on the perception of the observer. In other words, space and time do not exist without the human ability to observe them. He also stated that matter was simply another form of energy. His formula was E = mc^2, or energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Importantly, this formula helped to usher in the atomic age by offering an explanation for the energy contained within an atom.

Artistic Realism

Science was not the only area to undergo a shift during this time. The world of art was changing as well. Beginning in 1850, Realism began to emerge as the preferred method of painting.

This style focused on depicting everyday people and events, such as farmers tending their fields or families gathered around a dinner table. This style was also marked by an attempt at photographic realism and a focus on nature.

Two influential Realists were Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet. Courbet's paintings depicted subjects such as factory workers and everyday women. According to Courbet, 'I have never seen either angels or goddesses, so I am not interested in painting them.' Millet painted mostly rural scenes, such as peasants harvesting their fields. His most famous work was 'The Gleaners', a depiction of three women working in a field.

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