Realism

What is Realism?

Realism is the term used to describe both a specific 19th century art movement and, in a broader sense, the accurate depiction of the surrounding world – life, people, light, colour – within any art form. In Modern and Contemporary art realism can be used in conjunction with other terms to denote highly detailed illusionistic representation, such as photorealism or hyperrealism. There is some difficulty in joining these two definitions of realism. The artists associated with both European and American Realism did not necessarily strive to be mimetic in technique, as much as they did with the subject matter, with many works appearing painterly, almost impressionistic in quality.

Notable Realist Artworks

Old Drunkard, late 3rd century BC

Old Drunkard, late 3rd century BC, marble, Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Old Drunkard, late 3rd century BC, marble, Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Portrait Bust of an Old Man, 75-65 BC

Portrait Bust of an Old Man, 75-65 BC, marble, Vatican Museum, Vatican City.
Portrait Bust of an Old Man, 75-65 BC, marble, Vatican Museum, Vatican City.

The Peasant Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  c. 1567

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Dance, c. 1567, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Dance, c. 1567, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1668

Jan Steen, The Merry Family, 1668, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1668, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

A Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1849-50

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, oil on cavas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
A Burial at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1849-50, oil on cavas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

 The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

History of Realism

The ability to imitate life has long been prized by artists and patrons alike. Ideas of mimesis and imitatio have roots in Ancient Greece, particularly in the development of sculpture. According to Pliny the Elder, the Aphrodite of Knidos – by the sculptor Praxiteles – was so lifelike that it fooled viewers. The statue was said to be so beautiful that an unnamed man broke into the temple and attempted to copulate with the statue, leaving evidence of his lust behind. Conversely, genre sculpture of the Hellenistic Period – for example, the Old Drunkard dated to around the 3rd century BC – is famed for its starkness, showing no attempts to beautify or hide the effects of time or vice.

 

Realism is frequently used to describe accuracy in portraiture. Veristic portrait busts, which were made throughout the Roman Empire, highlighted the advanced age and imperfections of the sitter resulting in highly individualised likenesses that would have been recognizable to the general public. Emphasising certain features was a way to remind the viewer of familial associations or favoured characteristics, such as authority, experience, or wisdom. Taking inspiration from the classical world, artists of the Italian and Northern Renaissance alike had renewed aspirations to the human body and the surrounding world as accurately as possible. Newly established techniques relating to proportion and perspective afforded them more opportunities for lifelike representation. Leading to the use of techniques like trompe-l’œil, artists aimed to blur the boundaries between the real and the depicted.

 

From the Renaissance onwards, more attention too was given to the rendering of landscape. Accuracy in depicting flora and fauna, sun and weather added to the overall reality of a work. Conversely, the popularity of domestic interior scenes of the 17th century, depicting intimate scenes at dinner tables, kitchens and living rooms, furthered these ideas. Artists such as Jan Steen used these recognizable settings, and the lives of ordinary people, to convey moralistic messages about folly and sin. The popularity of painters such as the Bamboccianti, whose subjects included beggars, farmers, and street vendors, shows this moving away from the depiction of grandness and conspicuous consumption, to the embracing of every day and even ‘lowly’ themes. Genre and Pastoral painting were both increasingly popular, depicting farm and village life as sentimental, idealized, moralizing or even comic – exemplified in the reddened and gurning faces depicted in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Peasant Dance.

 

The art movement ‘Realism’ started in the 1840s in France, as a reaction against Romanticism and the popular history paintings favored by the Academies. It was also further spurred by the idyllic hameau and other rustic constructions of the century prior. There was a specific idealisation of the country, ignoring the realities of hard labor and poverty. Seeking to convey everyday subject matters, such as the lives of farmers, labourers and peasants, in a naturalistic fashion, the movement was spearheaded by Gustave Courbet. Defined by a newly forming social consciousness, and the desire to depict both the beauty and ugliness of everyday life, it is considered by many as being the beginning of Modern Art. The movement had a counterpart in American Realism. Starting contemporaneously in the mid 19th century with literature the movement then spread the visual arts in the early 20th century.

Notable Realist Artists

  • Edward Hopper
  • George Bellows
  • Gustave Courbet
  • Jean-François Millet

Related Art Terms

  • Academic Art
  • American Realism
  • Ashcan School
  • Genre Painting
  • History Painting
  • Hyperrealism
  • Mimesis
  • Modern Art
  • Naturalism
  • Pastoral
  • Photorealism
  • Romanticism

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