Realism is a specific genre of art that first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. While it can describe paintings created in a “photo-realist” style, it’s more about the natural subject matter. For example, these paintings could feature working people, families eating dinner, or lone individuals wiling away the hours in a bar or café.
Whatever the topic, Realism artists delight in elevating everyday life. They give their sitters art historical importance, authenticity, and respect, irrespective of social class or status.
But who were these Realist artists?
From Gustav Courbet paintings to the work of Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper, we explore the most famous Realism artworks.
Before the nineteenth century, history painting and something called the “Grand Manner” dominated art. Grand Manner painting refers to images based on idealized, classical approaches. Oil paintings often featured mythological scenes and emulated Italian Renaissance paintings from old master artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.
In contrast, Realism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century.
Rather than highly controlled and unrealistic subject matter, these artworks abandoned artificiality. Instead, they favored depictions of real life and everyday people.
Realism developed together with “Naturalism”. The style (exemplified by painters such as John Constable) tries to represent things the way we view them. Combined, these two movements paved the way for later innovations such as Impressionism and Modern Art.
Champfleury, the French novelist produced the term “Realism” in the 1840s. In Champfleury’s understanding, Gustav Courbet paintings perfectly illustrate the Realist painting.
A Realist painting accurately depicts everyday (contemporary) life or natural scenes. Artists in this style usually use a precise technique, rejecting imaginative idealized forms. Realism art favors close observation of external appearances and natural light.
Although this isn’t always the case, Realist painting often illustrates peasant and working-class life. In addition, city streets, cafes, bars, and entertainment venues make a regular appearance.
Realist artists also developed a new way of presenting the human form. Rather than classical, idealized approaches (such as Botticelli or Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus), they painted bodies with unflinching frankness. In addition, painters such as Gustave Courbet and Francisco Goya increasingly presented the body as a sexual subject.
Over time, Realism art features grittier subjects, often designed to shock middle and upper-class art audiences.
It is important to remember that Realist art can also refer to intricately detailed paintings known as photo-realism and hyper realistic art. With a sharply focused approach, groups such as the Pre Raphaelite artists employed this particular painterly style.
Oil paintings such as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia show this technique in action. Nonetheless, the photo-realistic Pre Raphaelites differ from true Realism artworks due to their mythological and narrative subject matter.
Although Realism artworks spread all over Europe, French painters notably adopted the style. They rejected Romantic and Historical approaches. Realist artists painted human sitters with all their flaws, imperfections, and reality. In this way, they presented “everyday” people as worthy of artistic depiction.
Realistic art surfaced partly because of the 1848 French Revolution, which focused on workers’ rights and social equality, among other issues.
The main characteristics of Realist paintings include the following:
● A complete rejection of Romantic and Classical ideals.
● Representing contemporary settings and sitters “as they were”.
● Focusing on working people and everyday situations.
● Duller, earth-toned color palettes were typical, ignoring the opulent jewel tones of Renaissance oil paintings.
● Reacting to a new European awareness of workers’ rights and the lower classes.
Some foremost Realist painters include the French artists Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and Gustave Courbet.
Outside of France, Russian artists such as Ilya Repin and Vasily Preov formed the influential Wanderers group (known as the Peredvizhniki). In the Netherlands, the Hague School worked with realist principles inspired by early paintings by van Gogh.
British and American artists particularly reveled in Realist approaches. Some well-known realist painters included James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Ford Madox Brown, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins.
Indeed, Homer and Eakins played a significant role as forerunners of the later Ashcan School. This latter movement depicted the daily life of the American lower classes with incredible realism and sensitivity.
American Gothic by Grant Wood oil painting is considered realism style art. The original American Gothic painting is a major attraction at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Here are four examples of Realism art from famous Realist painters.
Gustave Courbet paintings often sparked controversy, and this unusual double portrait was no exception. Nevertheless, the Stone Breakers was one of the artist’s earliest works to shock the French art establishment.
Courbet ignored classical traditions of painting rural people in harmony with nature. Courbet presents two men working hard at back-breaking tasks. The stony roadside provides little comfort, with the shadows ominously encroaching from the top of the composition.
The men’s concealed faces and ripped clothes reinforce their work’s dehumanizing and repetitive nature.
Among Thomas Eakins paintings, The Gross Clinic (or The Clinic of Dr. Gross) is one of the most shocking. Measuring 240 by 200 centimeters, it is an oversize artwork showing a professor lecturing in medical anatomy.
With uncompromising Realism and gory detail, the artwork charts the emergence of surgery. Medical students crowd around an anesthetized patient undergoing a thigh-bone operation.
Intriguingly, Eakins also included a self-portrait in this exceptional work. He is the shadowy figure on the far right-hand side, sketching or making notes on the scene.
Describing his iconic painting Nighthawks, Edward Hopper spoke of the “loneliness of a large city”. This Edward Hopper painting shows three customers sitting in an all-night diner. Each person appears lost in thought, disengaged from their fellow humans. The bright glow of the diner’s electric lights contrasts with the dark street outside.
With no discernable entrance to the diner and no people on the night-time streets, it’s an eerie depiction. Although the painting is an example of Realism (with its focus on everyday life), it’s not a “real” scene. Hopper took inspiration from a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. Despite this, the actual location is a figment of Hopper’s imagination.
Among the many Edward Hopper famous paintings, Nighthawks is his celebrated work of art. It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, USA.
Nighthawks by Hopper is also one of our most popular reproductions of famous paintings.
If you love the authenticity and beauty of Realism art, explore our extensive collection of oil paintings for sale. We specialize in hand-crafted replica art, from Edward Hopper’s famous paintings to Gustave Courbet’s and Thomas Eakins’s incredible work. What will you discover?
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