Realism has a reputation as one of the most difficult art styles to master. Learning this style starts with studying famous realism artists – both historical and modern.
No matter what kind of style you’re aiming for, realism is the base with which we all work from. However, realism isn’t just a high attention to detail – the realism movement also has its own unique philosophies.
Before you break the rules, you need to learn them. Below you’ll learn about the history of the realism art movement, the most famous realism artists, and how to start developing your own realism art.
- A Brief History of the Realism Art Movement
- Gustave Courbet
- Édouard Manet
- Mary Cassatt
- Rosa Bonheur
- Winslow Homer
- Frida Kahlo
- Edward Hopper
- Vasily Surikov
- Henry Ossawa Tanner
- Andrew Wyeth
- Art Movements Similar to Realism
- Contemporary Realist Painters You Should Know About
- Realism Both Reflects Life and Expands Upon It
A Brief History of the Realism Art Movement
The realism art movement has a fascinating history rooted predominantly in the Industrial Revolution. After centuries of idealized and abstract art forms, realism artists wanted to portray everyday life more closely.
It’s important to note the distinction between realism as a technical skill and realism as an artistic approach. A detailed and true-to-life style is apparent in multiple art movements such as classical and romantic.
You can see this idealistic approach in many historical painting niches, such as paintings of royalty and nobles. These art forms often portrayed people and settings as dreamlike and beautiful.
The realism movement takes a decidedly different approach, preferring to celebrate the ordinary rather than exaggerate it. Instead of grandiose poses and rosy lighting, there’s a greater emphasis on subdued colors, simple settings, and a wide array of emotions.
There’s a magic to the every day that the realist movement helps capture. The realism movement has endured to this day, influencing many art forms such as painterly realism, realism photography, and pop art.
Who are the famous artists who contributed to the realist movement?
Widely considered the father of this art movement, Gustave challenged conventional notions of painting at the time. Instead of depicting religious or royal figures, he committed to providing the same loving attention to detail to workers and landscapes.
Courbet was raised in a family with deep working-class roots and a disdain for the upper class. His grandfather not only fought in the French Revolution, but he himself found little love for conventional higher education. Courbet studied various artists as he traveled to different countries and connected with other independent artists.
His emphasis on painting his own life, rather than recreating the historical or mythological past, gave birth to the fundamentals of realism. He was also unafraid to portray how harsh and unforgiving life can be, whether through his depictions of poverty or an individual’s misery.
The Stone Breakers is a famous painting of working-class modern life (at the time). It’s part of a sub-niche called social realism, a form of realism art to encourage sympathy or raise awareness of social issues.
Even in his casual Self-Portrait, Man With a Pipe, Gustave’s independent spirit is evident in his confident expression and casual tilt to the head. His realist paintings feel more like a casual conversation than a gallery viewing.
You’ve likely heard of Édouard Manet in the impressionist art world. Not only was this painter well-versed in vivid and expressive brushstrokes, he was also a master at capturing realism.
Born in 1832 to a wealthy family, this French painter had a rocky beginning in his art career. After struggling to pass his classes and failing to join the Navy twice, he decided to study painting. Despite his rigorous study of old masters, his painting teacher was frequently horrified by his unorthodox – or blunt – approach to painting life.
The Absinthe Drinker is a striking piece for several reasons. Not only was it Manet’s first original and his first major painting, it was also highly controversial.
Manet was heavily criticized for portraying an absinthe drinker (a powerful alcohol that was seen as a symbol of crime and disorder). His teacher outright scolded him for the piece and the painting was rejected from the 1859 Paris Salon, a famous art exhibition.
Another controversial piece – and a widespread example of the realism movement – is his oil painting The Luncheon on the Grass.
Not only was this painting’s large size normally meant for historical or biblical subjects, but his portrayal of nudity was considered vulgar. Some artists also criticized his painting technique, such as his brushstrokes.
It’s a small wonder why Édouard Manet is widely credited as one of the pioneers of the realism movement. His challenging portrayal of daily life and commitment to his vision in spite of opposition is a powerful lesson for all artists.
Another impressionist painter who also had some contributions to the realism art movement is Mary Cassatt, an American artist with many famous pieces to her name. While she mostly focused on impressionism, some elements of her work hearken to realism fundamentals.
Cassatt’s work faced mixed responses at the beginning of her career. While some of her paintings were accepted to the famed Paris Salon, several of her paintings would be rejected by the same exhibition years later. After years of struggling to find places that would showcase her work, famed artist Edgar Degas would help her get accepted into independent exhibitions.
Cassatt is one of the most influential female artists in the United States for her impeccable eye for detail. Her paintings showcase life at its most casual and natural, whether it’s in her subject’s natural poses or in her subtle color choices. She had a particular flair for unique compositions that felt more mundane than staged.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair hovers in a middle ground between realism and impressionism. While her loose brushstrokes are decidedly impressionistic, her high attention to detail and mundane subject matter is very realistic.
The Child’s Bath also blends an impressionist painting with a realist painting. While the bold colors and varied brushstrokes lean toward the former, this painting is still a celebration of an everyday moment.
With a portfolio ranging from animals to humans, Rosa Bonheur is one of the great realist masters and best-known female artists. Her ability to capture the energy and subtlety of everyday life still inspires millions of artists to this day.
Rosa Bonheur was born to a family of artists, reportedly drawing before she could even talk. While she was known as a disruptive and unruly student, she would later thrive in art school. Rosa spent much of her time studying famous paintings as well as doing extensive life studies. She even visited veterinary institutes to dissect and study animal anatomy up close.
This extreme devotion to the little details of daily life is evident in her work. Her oil paintings have a photographic quality due to their crisp detail, subtle lighting, and carefully arranged compositions.
The Horse Fair is one of her many breathtaking contributions to the realist art movement. The sheer energy of the horse is palpable, doubly impressive for how difficult horses are to paint.
At first glance, I thought Ploughing in the Nivernais was a photo. Alongside The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur demonstrated a remarkable capacity here for natural lighting, particularly in how she captured a lazy afternoon haze.
When discussing realist artists, it’s impossible to overlook the famous American painter Winslow Homer. His rural lifestyle heavily impacted his future art career, evident in his celebration of natural environments and working classic backgrounds.
His art career was a long and dynamic one. He first got his start doing commercial illustrations for magazines as well as wood engravings. Winslow was rarely short on work due to the ongoing demand for expressive and trendy art. He would later shift to classical painting after opening up a studio in New York.
Winslow Homer received critical acclaim during his career as well as after he passed. He demonstrated a phenomenal grasp on the fundamentals of not just light and color, but the principles of realism. His paintings of everyday environments and hardworking people are sincere, subtle, and feel real enough to spring to life.
Prisoners from the Front is one of his most famous works – indeed, one of the most famous realist paintings. This depiction of the American Civil War was born from Winslow’s extensive work both during and after wartime.
The Fog Warning is a realist painting that clearly demonstrates the technical and artistic approach of the movement. The technique here is hazy and natural, while the character’s uncertain pose quickly puts us in his shoes.
Frida Kahlo is a household art name and for good reason. Her contributions to the realism art movement were of the magical realism kind, a powerful blend that inspires many artists to this day.
Kahlo had a rich and varied foundation with which to build her art career. She started drawing at a young age with extensive instruction from her father’s friend, a skilled printmaker.
She later worked in engraving as a way to support her family. A sudden bus accident would confine her to the hospital for years, eventually inspiring her to consider medical illustration.
Throughout her life’s challenges, art regularly was a place for Frida Kahlo to recover, reflect, and reconnect with herself. She briefly studied in the United States before returning to Mexico to further her artistic career. Her work was considered both inspiring and shocking, sometimes rejected and other times accepted to prestigious galleries.
Me and My Parrot is one of Frida Kahlo’s many famous self-portraits, depicting herself with her pets. She stated in the past that she is the subject she knows best, hence her extensive focus on self-portraiture in various settings.
Roots is an example of the magical part of her magical realism focus. Some of her favorite supporting elements were of the natural world, reflecting her philosophy of interconnectedness.
Realism has many sub-niches and variations worthy of study. Edward Hopper was an American realist who gained fame for his ability to translate modern life into fascinating, emotional, and moody pieces.
Hopper showcased a strong ability to draw at an early age, actively encouraged by his family with art supplies and as many art books as he wanted. While he would later entertain ambitions of becoming a naval architect, he later decided to study at an art design school. He was heavily inspired by famous painters such as Edgar Degas, Rembrandt, and Édouard Manet.
Despite strong technical skills and a knack for portraying many different subjects, Edward grew frustrated with commercial illustration. He struggled to find work during difficult economic times and turned to private painting for both money and to keep his love for art alive.
Miss Josephine Nivison is a well-known realism painting of the 19th century, depicting another artist he met on a painting trip. Despite thick and stylized brushstrokes, the subdued pose and intense expression are realism staples.
Another wonderful example of realism artwork is his phenomenal painting of ordinary life in New York Restaurant. This painting depicts an everyday scene composed almost like a scene out of a movie – indeed, Edward was a huge fan of cinema and regularly took inspiration from movies.
While several of the famous artists on this list had regular access to art classes and materials, Vasily Surikov had more barriers in his career. This man’s determination in the face of strife is not only commendable but a major source of inspiration for his art.
Surikov’s family faced several hardships after the passing of his father. He was unable to continue his art education and had to take on desk work in order to make ends meet. Thanks to extensive networking and quite a bit of traveling, he was able to attend drawing school and breathe life into his artistic goals.
He first got established in the art world by depicting historical scenes and landscapes. Some of his paintings sold for enough money to fund extensive art tours around the continent.
One of the most breathtaking pieces of this artistic movement is The Morning of the Streltsy Execution, an elaborate illustration based on a failed uprising in the 17th century. The attention to detail is almost hypnotic, from the carefully rendered clothes to the towering buildings.
You can also see his history as a landscape artist in The Bronze Horseman. As a realist painter, he paid close attention to incredibly subtle changes in lighting and atmospheric perspective.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
With a portfolio blending American realism with impressionism and symbolism, Henry Ossawa Tanner is a stellar example of an imaginative 19th-century artist. He was unafraid to chart new waters or experiment with styles until he found what spoke to him.
His inspiration to become a painter was from a chance encounter with a landscape painter working at a park while he was walking with his father.
As an African-American artist in 19th century America, Tanner faced constant prejudice in his attempt to receive an art education or showcase his work in galleries. Nonetheless, he persisted by attempting to start a photography studio, and then later moving to France.
He would later stay in Paris due to fewer social barriers and more lucrative work. His paintings were featured at the famous Paris Salon with other artists and received critical acclaim.
The Banjo Lesson is a powerful example of how realism art seeks to tell everyday stories with little stylization or exaggeration. This quiet moment is made all the more tender with its rough brushstrokes and simple composition.
As a realist painter, he had a vested interest in portraying life’s little moments. While a classical painting may have gone for a more elegant or dreamlike approach, the Bagpipe Lesson is charmingly laid back.
Last but certainly not least, we have the legendary Andrew Wyeth, a realist painter who’s well-known in the American art world. His depictions of the American countryside and its subjects are infinitely compelling.
Wyeth was born to an artistic father and a supportive family. His love for movies, music, and nature fed his creativity and inspired him to draw on a regular basis. His father would teach him art fundamentals in his studio, such as figure drawings and watercolor painting. While Wyeth originally didn’t want to pursue art as a career, he later decided to exhibit his work at galleries.
His first solo exhibition sold out all his paintings, setting him on the path as one of the most influential artists of the time. He frequently focused on the emotion of a piece, seeking to capture the abstraction of everyday people and objects. Despite his fame, he courted controversy by avoiding oil paints and focusing ‘too much’ on rural subject matter.
Christina’s World is among Wyeth’s best-known works of the 19th century. The subject matter of a polio survivor who could no longer walk is both painful and hopeful – a staple of realism art.
That Gentleman is another 19th-century painting with critical acclaim, particularly for its astute observation of an idle moment. The relaxed pose and soft lighting is exemplary.
Art Movements Similar to Realism
You’ve likely noticed all the different variations on realism in the art world as you’ve moved through this list. Realism is a wonderful technical and artistic development that can easily overlap with styles, much like how a soup base can be turned into a hundred different recipes.
Painterly (or Painterly Realism)
Painterly realism is an informal term for a technically realistic art style that adds dramatic touches here and there. Common stylistic flourishes are heavier brushstrokes, saturated colors, and dynamic compositions.
While famous works like The Horse Fair and Christina’s World look quite realistic, painterly realism takes a little inspiration from the Romantic movement by exaggerating reality. Frank Brangwyn, a Welsh painter and printmaker in the 19th century, had a distinctively painterly realist style. While his proportions and high attention to detail were true to life, he often exaggerated with boisterous brushstrokes and vivid colors.
The Market Stall has a sharp attention to detail from the chicken feathers to the wrinkles on the man’s face, but intensified. The vibrant colors and expressive brushstrokes almost hearken to impressionism.
Magical realism has been touched on here with Frida Kahlo, but the movement’s complex approach to life bears repeating. Magical realism adds surreal or dreamlike touches to mundane settings and subjects.
This movement differs from outright fantasy by still focusing on ordinary life, but with a fanciful or strange twist.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is a famous magical realism oil painting in its exaggerated framing of daily life. The angular edges of the restaurant and intense neon lighting add a dreamlike quality to an otherwise mundane scene.
While impressionism often veers away from realism with its dynamic brushwork and exaggerated colors, many realist artists take inspiration from it. Indeed, impressionism and realism are cousins rather than dynamic opposites.
Both impressionism and realism seek to replicate everyday life with style and emotion, albeit for different reasons. While impressionism is often whimsical and enchanting, realism ranges from tender to tragic.
L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas is one of the best examples of the merging of impressionism with realism. You have the characteristic gestural brushstrokes of impressionism but with the gritty honesty of realism.
When you want a more playful approach to everyday life, look to pop art for inspiration. Pop art takes realism, cranks up the saturation, and then adds stylistic elements like heavy ink lines and graffiti touches.
Marilyn Diptych is arguably Andy Warhol’s best-known work, recreating Marilyn Monroe’s likeness after her tragic passing in 1962. Common interpretations of this 19th-century staple is the colorful life of a celebrity contrasted with mortality.
Contemporary Realist Painters You Should Know About
Want to know about other artists who craft realist paintings? There are many contemporary painters to fall in love with, but here’s a starting point.
One of today’s most stunning realist artists is Juliette Aristides, a Seattle-based painter who has been featured in many magazines and compilations. She’s also a fine arts educator who later became a founding member of the Water Street Studio.
Her work embodies a blend of realism and impressionism, taking heavy inspiration from classical art masters. You can see the technical influence from 19th-century painters in her above piece, Pandora’s Box.
Another American painter with phenomenal realist paintings is Jeremy Lipking, a painter with a particularly rich artistic style. He takes pride in his ability to tap into the richness of realism, avoiding photographic flatness in favor of bold colors and striking shapes.
Riders Under Vermillion Cliffs is one of the most majestic modern art pieces today. The artist’s ability to capture the subtle stretch of the sunset is startlingly lifelike, yet also feels like another time and place.
It’s impossible to discuss famous modern art without bringing up Kehinde Wiley, an American portrait painter with a natural and expressive style. His artistic inspiration has quite literally stretched across continents, studying everywhere from Russia to Nigeria.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama is not just his best-known work, but one of the best-known paintings of the modern day. There is significant symbolism in this portrait through the use of flora – for example, the chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer.
One of the best-known contemporary realist artists today is Ali Cavanaugh, a painter who has featured her work in countless exhibitions, galleries, and publications. Her style blends the realist principles of capturing life as naturally as possible but with a distinctively modern approach.
One of the most striking characteristics of her work is her use of colorful washes. Her tight attention to detail is balanced beautifully by intentional bleeding and dripping of the paint, resulting in pieces that feel just a little nostalgic.
Her painting Gush captures the subtle intricacies of a subject’s face but with energetic and abstract washes. It’s the kind of work you can easily see gracing the cover of a magazine as well as the inside of a gallery (of which she routinely does both).
While realism generally avoided the visual and emotional philosophies of classical art movements, it’s still possible to combine the two with stunning results. Adam Miller is a contemporary realist artist who embraces both the grit of realism with the dramatic staging of neoclassicism.
The Bone Wars is an oil painting that hearkens to the Renaissance with its complex composition and exaggerated poses, yet has distinctively down-to-earth subject matter.
Realism Both Reflects Life and Expands Upon It
Realism art provides fascinating depictions of all the different shapes and sizes our everyday life can take. Whether you enjoy a cartoony style or an abstract style, all artists can learn a few things from this fascinating art movement.
You’re just a few practice sessions away from creating your own oil painting masterpieces. Visit Evolve Artist to sign up for their beginner oil painting program.
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