What is Realism in Art? A Brief Guide for Beginners

what is realism in art?

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Realism can be a tricky movement to define. To put things simply – it’s both a technical style and an artistic philosophy.

Realism is essential to any artist’s toolkit since it relies on fundamental skills. Even if you want to create more stylized or abstract art, having a realist foundation will help you make impactful and emotional work.

To help you understand how realism can help you, I’m going to briefly define the realism art movement below. You’ll also learn about realist painters and how they created one of the most legendary movements of all time.

What is the Definition of Realism? 

The realist movement was essentially a counterculture movement, giving voice to people and experiences usually swept under the rug. As such, it’s unsurprising to see how realism would later give birth to movements such as social realism and pop art.

what is the definition of realism?
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The realism art movement is just as much about philosophy as technical polish. Realist painters explicitly wanted to explore a different side to life that rarely saw the light of day.

While art movements like Romanticism and Neoclassicism showed a more idealized and polished side of life, some painters wanted to explore other angles. Many realist artists grew disillusioned with the rigid expectations of art institutions of the time, seeking out different emotions and approaches over what was considered ‘proper’.

As you gradually pick up the essential elements of art, you’ll find yourself able to create realist works as well as a number of different styles.

A Brief History of Realism

Realism is a relatively modern art movement compared to centuries-old movements like medievalism and Romanticism. It originated around the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, with most historians agreeing France was its most significant influence.

A Brief History of Realism
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Unlike art movements that put a great emphasis on recreating religious scenes or historical figures, one of the realism art characteristics is preferring to interpret everyday life as is. Instead of buttery lighting and sweeping postures, bent backs and haunted expressions were the norm. Rather than painting royalty or famous figures, realist painters celebrated everyday people.

Learning how to paint a high level of detail is only one-half of realism. When you learn about the emotional and social pillars supporting the realism movement, you’ll be inspired to look at your modern world in a new way.

Who Were the Main Artists of Realism? 

While many painters contributed to the realism art period, many historians credit the first artist on this list with birthing the movement.

Gustave Courbet

Widely known as the father of the realism movement, Gustave Courbet was a visionary who shunned conventional approaches to art. While he would feature his works in the famous Salon, he also challenged ideals of what art was ‘supposed’ to be.

Raised in a family with anti-monarchical roots, he learned the power of independence and nurturing an artistic voice at a young age. While he briefly worked at art studios, he preferred the independent route and chose to sharpen his skills through personal study and travel. Actively socialist and involved in many French movements, his work was a powerful reflection of contemporary life.

the stone breakers
The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet is one of the best-known realist paintings for effectively capturing the everyday reality of an often overlooked group of day laborers.

Jean-François Millet

Another major contributor to realism art is Jean-François Millet, an illustrator and painter with a background atypical of many leading artists at the time. While many painters came from well-off families, Millet came from a farming family and grew up in a small village.

His career started with portrait painting, his work sometimes met with praise and other times with divisive and even scornful responses from art critics. In fact, his best-known piece was considered one of the most controversial in academic art at the time.

the gleaners
The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet

His realism painting The Gleaners was an uncomfortable reminder to upper-class art critics and painters of where their wealth came from. Considering it was displayed just a few decades after the famous French Revolution, art enthusiasts attempted to shun and reject the painting for the attitudes it could cultivate.

As it stands, The Gleaners has withstood the test of time as one of the great history paintings.

Rosa Bonheur

While the realism art definition usually focuses on human subjects or manmade structures, it can also explore natural life. Rosa Bonheur is one of the best-known contributors to the realism art definition with her love of nature.

She was born to a family of artists who actively encouraged her passion, often disdaining school and sometimes being expelled outright. Far from discouraged, she would study paintings from the Louvre and spend time with her father in his painting studio.

Fascinated by livestock and the hard work of farmers, she went the extra mile with extensive live study and visits to veterinarian institutes.

the horse fair
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur

Her best-known work is easily The Horse Fair, a stunning showcase of realism in art. It was first showcased at the Salon back in 1853 and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting was well-received and passed through many hands as it was sold, displayed, and sold again.

Édouard Manet

An inspiring aspect of realist artists is how they held true to their vision despite social blowback, academic difficulty, or financial difficulties. While Manet was born to an affluent family, he had several barriers on his way to becoming one of the best-known realism artists.

Similar to Bonheur, Manet was never one for academic pursuits and often struggled in school. He would later find painting to be his calling when his uncle helped enroll him in a drawing course.

While his work had a somewhat impressionistic touch, he still displayed many Realism art characteristics. He preferred to recreate real life, whether it was people at a party or enjoying a quiet dinner.

a bar at the folies-bergere
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet

His piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, blending realism philosophies with a unique painting style, was often seen as a surprise and puzzle to art critics at the time. This depiction of everyday life involved studying a model of one of the workers at this bar, a woman named Suzon.

Andrew Wyeth

When you ask, “What is realism in art?”, Andrew Wyeth’s portfolio won’t be far behind. His contributions to modern art are felt far and wide in the West.

Raised in a happy and nurturing family, Wyeth fell in love with art at a young age. His father taught him several art fundamentals in his studio such as watercolor and figure study. While he originally wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue art as a career, Wyeth would eventually pursue book illustration.

Realist artists often chose specialties in real life and he was well-known for his love of fields and farms.

christiana's world
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

One of his great contributions to the visual arts is Christina’s World, a portrait inspired by one of his former neighbors.

Realism in Art is Both a Psychological Exercise and a Technical Skill 

The realism painting movement takes your life and reflects it back at you with honesty. It can’t simply be recreated with a camera – this movement demands the artistic flourishes painters add to the world.

If you’re eager to add to contemporary art with a few pieces of your own, check out Evolve Artist’s in-depth course. They provide sharp feedback on realistic fundamentals such as light, shadow, and form to help your work stand out.

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