The realism art movement is an essential foundation to develop as an artist. Not only does this movement teach you the importance of technical skills, it establishes the necessity of having a vision.
Realism is a springboard for many different art styles, even if you want to go very cartoony or abstract. Since all art remixes the world around us, realism teaches you how to blend technical skills with philosophy.
It’s time for an art history lesson. Let’s take a look at the realist style, what the term realism means, and how you can learn from the masters.
- What is the Realism Art Movement?
- What are the 5 Characteristics of Realism Art?
- Examples of Famous Realism Artists
- The Origin of Realism as an Art Movement
- The Social and Political Goals of Realism
- The Impact of Realism
- Art Movements Inspired by Realism
- Realism is a Foundational Movement That’s Given Birth to Many Styles
What is the Realism Art Movement?
When was the last time you studied history paintings? The realism art movement overflows with inspiration, so I’ll break things down so you can start learning from the past.
What are the 5 Characteristics of Realism Art?
Now that you’ve had an art history crash course, I’ll help you identify realism art at a glance. Several art essentials – some of which you already know – will help here.
A Heavy Focus on Everyday Settings
Realist artists often steered clear of fantastical environments or mythological subject matter. They preferred to focus on contemporary life, such as indoor environments, ordinary people, or nature.
Everyday life is such a prominent focus in realism, that you may feel as if you went back in time. Some of the most famous realist artists such as Gustave Courbet and Rosa Bonheur were phenomenal at capturing the little details of mundane environments.
The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet is one of the best-known history paintings, capturing the grueling life of day laborers back in the 1800s.
An Emphasis on Photographic Accuracy
The realist style was often lush with little details, all the better to capture everyday life with. Photographic accuracy was a high priority, though some artists would still exaggerate or stylize certain elements.
Rosa Bonheur was a master at recreating daily life, showcasing a phenomenal technique that included subtle lighting and a rich attention to detail (as seen here in her piece Weaning The Calves). She spent much of her time studying nature and would sometimes visit veterinary institutes to dissect animals to better understand their anatomy.
True-to-Life Color and Texture Choices
While many grand history paintings had vibrant color and rosy lighting, the realist movement often leaned toward more subdued color palettes. While real life can certainly be colorful, it can also be soft and muted.
While The Butcher’s Shop by Annibale Carracci originated well before the realism art movement, it’s a good example of the inspiration that fueled realist artists. The gritty color scheme and dark shadows are staples of the realist style.
The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet is perhaps the poster child of the realism history painting, depicting multiple working women harvesting wheat. Prevailing social expectations were that the modern life of the downtrodden was to remain a well-kept secret.
This painting was heavily criticized by the upper class when it was released, a testament to realism’s ability to challenge and subvert social norms.
A High Level of Detail
Everyday life is filled with tiny details, from the strands in someone’s hair to the sweat rolling down a person’s cheek. Realism revolutionized painting to look at details other movements would rather ignore.
October by Jules Bastien-Lepage may not be photorealistic, but he held firm to the realist tradition of breathing life into tiny details – he would later be credited as a naturalist artist, a movement similar to realism. The rough, uneven ground is only matched by the loving craftsmanship on the working women’s aprons and baskets.
An Observant and Restrained Perspective
Last but not least, taking an unrestrained perspective on ordinary life is a fundamental pillar of realism. This movement never sought to exaggerate or interpret life with modern art but to simply reflect it as it was.
The Chess Players by Honoré Daumier may not have incredibly tight attention to detail like some of the other paintings on this list, but its raw approach is undeniable. This scene accurately captures the mood and personalities of its two subjects.
Examples of Famous Realism Artists
We’ve already touched on a few of the most famous realism artists and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, but I’ll explore them further below. The lives they led had a major impact on how they developed their artistic vision.
The reason why Gustave Courbet is frequently at the top of the list when discussing realism is that he’s widely credited with birthing the movement. This counterculture artist originated from a revolutionary family who planted the seeds of social change in his mind early.
Gustave Courbet was never one for a traditional art institute or social expectations in French society. He drew much of his artistic inspiration from his everyday hobbies as well as studying painters in his own time.
While he would later be approved to famous galleries such as the Salon, he would start challenging expectations by focusing on subjects often ignored by mainstream artists.
Courbet generally avoided history painting and popular movements like neoclassicism in favor of interpreting life around him. The man was a firm believer in embracing one’s own life in art, rather than always interpreting historical or religious figures. Over time he grew bored with academic art and fascinated with the harshness and grit of life.
You can find many of Gustave Courbet’s famous works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After Dinner at Ornans is a stunning depiction of French realism, showcasing a quiet and somber meal. You can see many of the realist art staples here such as a depiction of ordinary life, a more subdued color scheme, and a high attention to detail. To top things off, this depiction is not meant to be romantic or idealized – it’s simply life happening.
One Gustave Courbet painting featured in the Metropolitan Museum is The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, an elegantly simple painting showcasing villagers returning home. This series was part of a larger series of works revolving around humble working-class life, including his famous piece The Stone Breakers.
Rosa Bonheur is well known in the modern world for having a firm grip on recreating ordinary life. Coming from a family of passionate artists who actively encouraged her artistic voice, she would later become a major contributor to the realist tradition in French society.
Bonheur had a particular affinity for nature, often recreating animals and forests as often as she would people. She spent much of her time in open fields and pastures to study livestock and wild animals alike. While she would study contemporary art and historical art at the time, she wasn’t one for traditional schooling.
The Spanish Muleteers is another powerful example of her realistic art and how well she’d bring the little details of life to the attention of art viewers. While you could reasonably argue that some elements of classical art made their way into this piece, the dust and grit of a hard day is still a realist focus.
While Gustave Courbet is considered the father of realism and Rosa Bonheur one of the biggest contributors, Édouard Manet occupies an interesting limbo. This artist’s unique voice blended the harshness of realism with the loose whimsy of impressionism.
Similar to Bonheur, Manet wasn’t a fan of traditional academic institutions. He often struggled in school and wasn’t happy with the confines of French society. His uncle actively encouraged him to consider painting, taking him on trips to the famous Louvre and later enrolling him in drawing courses. The ups and downs of his journey eventually inspired to his contributions to realism.
Rather than following the tradition of history painting and what was considered appropriate modern art at the time, Manet was fascinated by the world around him.
When realist painters replaced traditional angels and sweeping landscapes with honest snapshots, people couldn’t look away. The Absinthe Drinker was his first major painting and was heavily criticized at the time. However, it’s a prime example of many people in the Industrial Revolution and a contribution to one of the most famous movements of all time.
You can see Manet blending realism with impressionism well in Music in the Tuileries. The foundation of realism holds fast with the high attention to detail and depiction of everyday life, but with an impressionist twist. The colors are bright and fanciful, with some detail smudged into abstraction.
While many realist artists came from well-off families or had access to art education, Jean-François Millet had working-class roots. He grew up in a small farming community in a remote village, often having to make hay, plow, and sow to keep the farm running.
He later studied under a portrait painter, though his beginning art career was fraught with hurdles. After the loss of his wife and later having his work rejected by the Salon, he later connected with other artists to try and find his voice.
Over the years he would spend much of his time recreating the peasantry at the time, looking at his modern life with more complexity and sympathy found during that period.
Woman Baking Bread showed the hard work that kept French society afloat. The realism staples are all here, from the subdued color schemes to the simple framing of real life.
The Angelus was a commission by an American art collector who ended up not purchasing it. His work would then change hands multiple times before being sold for a high sum. This somber portrayal of a farming family praying for a bountiful harvest is downright symbolic of realism as a philosophical and social movement.
Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck
While Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet are better known in the art world, Helena is just as instrumental in defining realism as a movement. This Finnish painter’s strikingly unique style captured the realist philosophy while holding true to her unique artistic vision.
A childhood injury prevented Helena from attending school, though her early skill in drawing caught the eye of a local art professor. She excelled in art school and later opened up a studio to continue crafting oil paintings. Her art career continued to flourish as she traveled to France, took on book illustration commissions, and featured her work at exhibitions.
Her work Girl With a Madonna is a strong example of her unique style and how it blends with the realist foundation. This quiet, introspective moment is common in realism, though her textured brush strokes seem almost impressionistic at times.
The Convalescent is among her best-known works, winning a medal at the Paris World Fair and later being considered for Finland’s national painting in a 2006 public vote. The attention to detail poured into the child’s inquisitive and calm expression is nothing short of legendary.
While some artists were able to mentor under-experienced painters or sign up for an art school, Winslow Homer mostly taught himself. He’s not only a strong representation of what makes American realism so powerful but a testament to the power of resourcefulness.
One of his biggest artistic inspirations growing up was watching his mother craft watercolor paintings. While he didn’t particularly care for school, he was open-minded and proceeded to try many different trades before landing on art as a career. He opened up an independent studio and spent much of his time studying the landscapes around him.
He would later enjoy a thriving art career, later traveling to France and showing his paintings in exhibitions. His work enjoyed critical acclaim for his powerful technique and commitment to showcasing the growth of America, whether positive or negative.
Long Branch, New Jersey is a stellar example of his ability to capture the heat and haze of a sunny day by the beach. His extensive life studies contributed to his skill with the elements of art, such as his subtle color and expressive form.
Homer was particularly fond of recreating the American landscape. You can see that love in his incredible painting Crossing the Pasture, showcasing a spectacular command of texture. The grass and distant forests look so real as to be breathtaking.
The Origin of Realism as an Art Movement
Many historians widely consider realism to be the first modern art movement. Originating in France during the 1800s, this art movement was born as a response to rapidly shifting cultural and economic norms.
More specifically, the Industrial Revolution was a major source of inspiration for many realist painters of the past. While this period actually started in the 1700s, its expansion across the world eventually gave birth to the counterculture art movement known as realism.
With the birth of manufacturing machines and a more globalized economy, artists of the past reevaluated how they approached art.
While the Industrial Revolution drastically improved vital technology such as steam power and machine tools, it also worsened working conditions and damaged the surrounding environment.
These downsides led to increased social consciousness among artists at the time, later driving them to turn away from romanticized art movements in favor of recreating the harshness and complexity of life.
The Social and Political Goals of Realism
Realist painters weren’t interested in the rosy settings of Romanticism or creating yet another classical history painting, rather they were interested in the grit and grime of life. The social and political goals of realism are just as important to the movement as their tight, detailed techniques.
While the realist movement mostly originated in France, it spread across the world to establish roots in multiple countries, such as Russian visual art and American realism. Realist painters overwhelmingly avoided the conventional trappings of fine art, steering clear of painting rich nobles or recreating religious scenes.
To better appreciate the realism movement, it’s important to understand the sociopolitical struggles that helped form it. By the time the Industrial Revolution reached France, the country was undergoing a significant technological and social shift. While the French Revolution between 1789 to 1799 had recently ended, frustration and difficulties persisted.
Growing anger toward the bourgeoisie – a broad term referring to upper-class professionals and merchants – stoked fires in the workers and artists of the time. People were no longer enchanted by the mystery and mystique of nobles and royals, but were keen to improve their quality of life. Is it any wonder why the fantastical approach of Romanticism lost appeal?
Multiple revolutions would proceed to emerge throughout France over the coming decades. In the shadow of Britain emerging as the top industrial power, the people of France pushed to reduce the country’s influence by changing laws or social attitudes. Unsurprisingly, their efforts saw similar developments in America.
The American Revolution followed similar patterns, seeking to pull away from Great Britain to establish independence. Civil wars, protests, and changing social norms were prime fodder for the colonies’ growing realism movement. While art is a fantastic form of escapism, it’s also a way to vent frustrations or give catharsis to silenced and struggling populations.
With such massive economic and social upheaval around the world, many realist artists took it upon themselves to reflect the complexity of life.
As such, it’s common to see a realist painting revolving around the working class at the time. While many fine art movements focused on religious figures or the monarchy, the realist movement finally shone a light on the forgotten or the downtrodden. Impoverished workers, tired parents, and individuals struggling with alcoholism are just some of the subjects embraced by the realist movement.
Therein lies the controversy – realist painters constantly rejecting traditional norms of beauty and esteem were received poorly by many art critics at the time. We’ll look at realist artists more below to see firsthand how they changed the art world forever.
The Impact of Realism
Modern art owes a lot of credit to the realism art movement. You’ve likely already seen a realist painting or two, whether in-person at a gallery or glimpsed online.
Realist artists’ bold and honest approach has since birthed many similar movements in the art world. Photorealism is an art style that draws from realist paintings but focuses more on technique than philosophy. This approach seeks to recreate reality as closely as possible, essentially recreating the work of a camera.
You can also see realism in a lot of contemporary art, such as photography or filmmaking styles. Once you start learning the inherent characteristics of realism, you’ll be able to spot its influence in an instant.
Art Movements Inspired by Realism
Realism, unsurprisingly, has helped give birth to several art movements. Let’s take a look at this powerful foundation and why it’s had such staying power with artists over the decades.
Naturalism is often confused with realism and understandably so. Both of these movements steer clear of the classic history painting or a monarchical focus in favor of embracing ordinary life.
Where realism and naturalism differ is in mood and purpose. Realism was often grungy and somber, refusing to shy away from the difficulties of everyday life. Naturalism was less socially motivated in favor of portraying natural subjects – often forests, plants, and animals – as sincerely as possible.
Among his best-known works is Joan of Arc, a painting that seamlessly blurs the lines between realism and naturalism. The heavy focus on nature is a naturalist staple, yet the vulnerable and somber expression on the subject’s face is fundamentally realist.
Pop art is another movement inspired heavily by realist artists, albeit more philosophically than technically. Pop art styles tend to be colorful, exaggerated, and a little minimalist, focusing on a striking first impression rather than rich detail.
However, this movement shares the same desire to shake up social norms and get people to ask questions just like realism.
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is a famous representation of capitalistic efficiency, for better and for worse. Seeing these ordinary cans arranged in such an artificial, repetitive way suddenly makes the viewer look at real life differently.
Surrealism may seem like an odd movement to put on here since it’s the direct opposite of realism. When you think about it, though, surrealism takes significant inspiration from the realist movement.
The realist movement focused on interpreting real life in its most honest and straightforward manner, even when it was uncomfortable (and especially so). Surrealism moves in the opposite direction, focusing on the subconscious mind and how it interprets the world around it.
The dreamy and strange visuals of surrealism can only exist because of its awareness of realism, not in spite of it.
The Persistence of Memory by legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dali is a famous painting in the modern world for its strange imagery and odd use of perspective.
Social realism is perhaps the closest off-shoot of realism, essentially an ongoing critique of the upper class with the aim of uplifting the working class. The social realism movement frequently focused on commercial illustrations and movies to raise awareness or validate people’s struggles.
One could call social realism a movement of truly democratic art. Instead of trying to live up to lofty ideals of what art should be, freedom of expression and the unearthing of the truth was the main goal.
While realism originated in France, the United States would soon give birth to many similar movements. In fact, several realist artists founded the Ash Can School – rather than a university, it was a movement in the late 1900s focused on New York’s poorer neighborhoods. You can likely see where some of the realism fundamentals come in.
Just as realism chose to celebrate the working class and smaller details of daily life, the Ash Can School allowed artists of all backgrounds to breathe life into their vision. Rather than follow in the footsteps of art and design institutions, one of the founders actively encouraged students to follow in France’s realism art footsteps.
Snow in New York by one of the founders, Robert Henri, is exemplary of the growing American realism movement. The subdued colors and sincere recreation of a busy, snowy day almost make you feel like you’ve been sent back in time.
Often confused with social realism, socialist realism is another variation on the realism art movement that left a powerful impact. In fact, you can still see this work in countries such as Laos and North Korea.
Originating in Soviet Russia, this realism variation both followed a few traditional pillars of the original movement while still going in a philosophically different direction. Where it’s similar to the original realism movement is in its detailed style and focus on working-class people. Where it differs is a focus on political figures and a romanticized view of the Soviet Union.
While realist art would often be displayed in famous galleries and public spaces despite the backlash, this version of realism didn’t enjoy the same freedom. The purpose of many of these works was to promote specific social attitudes that favored the leaders and their associated parties. Artists had to have their work approved in areas such as mood and subject matter.
Tachanka by Mitrofan Grekov is a socialist realist painting by an artist widely considered to be the father of ‘Soviet battle paintings’. It lines up closely with the focus of the movement on romanticized moments in the Union’s history.
Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic is featured in the Art Institute of Chicago and is well-known as a slice of social realism (as well as American realism). This piece features a quintessential working-class American family, portrayed with dry colors and serious expressions.
Realism is a Foundational Movement That’s Given Birth to Many Styles
The philosophical approach of realism is one all artists can appreciate in one fashion or another. Evolving from French society to craft honest depictions of modern life, realism is a foundational movement rooted in honesty.
You don’t have to visit the Metropolitan Museum to invite realist foundations into your own life. Simply paying close attention to your own life – from contemporary art to your own personal goals – will teach you how to become more intentional and challenging with your work.
If you’re wondering how you can bring everyday life into your own work, check out Evolve Artist’s pro-level skill course to transform your portfolio.
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