What is Realism?

Realism is the realistic and natural representation of things in artwork.

As we all know, there is an element of fantasy to images. If you saw a painting, sculpture, or any other artwork depicting a subject that was not literally present to the artist, you would not consider that piece to be realistic. That was why critics of painting called this “naturalism”; the presence of people and objects in a work of art was to be considered secondary to its reality. It was not a question of realism or not, but of the honesty with which the work was represented. A naturalist would not render his subjects in such a way that there was a deliberate attempt to substitute for reality, to pretend that they do not exist.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism is the subjectivity of the representation. Naturalists are true to the natural, which may or may not include humans. There is a long history of naturalism being applied to art. Tintoretto (d. 1616), Rembrandt (1606-1669), Cézanne (1839-1906) and van Gogh (1853-1890) are just a few of the many naturalists who have made their mark on art history. Art historian Deirdre Sullivan writes, “For Rembrandt, realism meant seeing in the mirror of our own nature. Cézanne was less literal than Rembrandt, and his sense of beauty was a function of our emotions as well as our reason.” By the time of Picasso (1881-1973) and Matisse (1869-1954), realism had been severely reduced to what we are accustomed to today.

History of Realism in Art

The tradition of realism in painting goes back to the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greek painting, images were not “representational.” They were intended to evoke the sense of a person looking at a specific subject or object. Thus, painting has always been about the eye and how it experiences the world. From the perspective of the eye, viewing any object can look very different depending on several factors. Factors such as light, composition, and perspective are what give an image realism. A more modern take on realism can be seen in the writings of authors such as John Ruskin and the Barbizon School, which focused on the rendering of the natural environment.

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a French romantic realist painter. Courbet was born in Paris in 1819 to a family of teachers. His father, a professor of law, influenced Courbet early in life to follow a career in academia. Courbet enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1841. The first paintings Courbet completed during this period were portraits. He frequently returned to these figures throughout his life. The first two paintings exhibited by Courbet were of his father and another of his family member. These early works were different from the more detailed forms in Courbet’s mature paintings. During this time Courbet also began making genre paintings. His work showed his interest in depicting the daily lives of ordinary people in Paris.

Jean-Francois Millet

Although he wasn’t a famous figure like Rembrandt or Monet, Millet’s work had a huge influence on popular culture, not only in France but in Germany and the United States. He painted thousands of scenes of French rural life, idealized peasant life, nature, etc.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

One of the most important early influences on the development of modern art in England was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was a group of Victorian era artists and draughtsmen. The Pre-Raphaelites are known for their pictures of Gothic romance and fierce landscapes with an emphasis on nature. They were also noted for their paintings of people, depicting beautiful women, biblical scenes, and dramatic storytelling scenes. Although they achieved little fame during their lifetimes, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has been most associated with the Edwardian era, beginning in about 1900. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s work was first brought to light in the late 19th century by a woman named Clara Philips. She was the sister-in-law of John Everett Millais, one of the leaders of the group.

Artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Edward Burne-Jones. Their work became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. A phrase from Rossetti’s poem, “The Warrior’s Progress,” became the group’s motto. As the Spanish expression would suggest, the members were inspired by the work of both the Renaissance and the Spanish Hierarchy of Cosmas and Damian. Their art was often known to be sexually explicit.

Notable Realist Artists

  • Adolph Menzel (1815–1905)
  • Alyssa Monks
  • Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009)
  • Antonio López García
  • Audrey Flack
  • Ben Shahn (1898–1969)
  • Champfleury (1821–1889)
  • Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878)
  • Chuck Close (1940–2021)
  • David Kassan
  • Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
  • Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
  • Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
  • Franz Roh (1890–1965)
  • George Bellows (1882–1925)
  • George Luks (1867–1933)
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Grant Wood (1891–1942)
  • Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)
  • Honoré Daumier (1808–1879)
  • Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)
  • Hubert von Herkomer (1849–1914)
  • Ilya Repin (1844–1930)
  • Isaac Levitan (1860–1900)
  • Ivan Kramskoi (1837–1887)
  • Ivan Shishkin (1832–1898)
  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875)
  • Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)
  • John Sloan (1871–1951)
  • Juan Luna (1857–1899)
  • Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884)
  • Jules Breton (1827–1906)
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)
  • Lucian Freud (1922–2011)
  • Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900)
  • Paul Cadmus (1904–1999)
  • Philip Evergood (1901–1973)
  • Ralph Goings (1928–2016)
  • Richard Estes
  • Robert Henri (1865–1929)
  • Roberto Bernardi
  • Ron Mueck
  • Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)
  • Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867)
  • Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
  • Tjalf Sparnaay
  • Vasily Perov (1834–1882)
  • Wilhelm Leibl (1844–1900)
  • William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)
  • Winslow Homer (1836–1910)