Realism is traditionally used to describe the 19th century movement that used everyday scenes and people as the subject and painted them in a naturalistic style. The term is also used to describe works of art that are painted so realistically that they resemble a photograph.
Realism as an artistic movement first began in France in the early 1850s, after the revolution of 1848. The movement was a rejection of Romanticism, the prevalent artistic and literary movement of the time. Romanticism was all about exotic subject matters, exaggerated emotions and intensified drama, whereas Realism intended to portray contemporary life as it truly was. Realism used normal people from all social classes in contemporary everyday situations as the subject matter. Artists tried to represent these people in a truthful and accurate way, not glossing over the more unpleasant aspects of life. The changing social climate brought about by the Industrial Revolution was often reflected in the work of Realist painters as well as in the works of writers such as Charles Baudelaire.
In their attempt to combat Romanticism and traditional History painting, Realist painters depicted the ‘real’ – real-life people engaging in everyday activities. One of art history’s most celebrated example of this is Jean-François Millet’s impressive Realist canvas, ‘The Gleaners’, which depicts three working-class woman bent over, tending to the land. Other key figures of the French Realism movement were Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jules Bastien-Lepage. The true pioneer of Realism was undoubtedly the French painter Gustave Courbet, whose best known work, ‘A Burial at Ornans’, now hangs in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Courbet’s paintings challenged the tradition of the History painting and therefore, the established hierarchy of painting established by the Academy. He painted real working people from his region on enormous canvases usually reserved for the lofty figures from classical history, and in doing so elevated these ordinary people to the same status. While his earlier style is sombre and borrowed techniques from the Old Masters in terms of precision and sophistication, Courbet’s later work went one step further in rejecting Romanticism. In his 1849 painting, ‘The Stonebreakers’, he subverts the traditional notion of man and nature’s harmonious relationship, choosing to depict the gruelling and repetitive tasks done by labourers in this unforgiving natural environment.
The success of Realist art started in France but rapidly spread to the rest of Europe and became highly influential to the art movements that superseded it. While the movement had clear equivalents in other European countries in terms of both style and ideology, it did not cause the same kind of controversy as it had done in France. Realism had been born out of an inherent social defiance of institutionalised traditions of painting, where support for History and Genre painting was implemented by state-sponsored art academies. In other European cultural hubs this national endorsement of Genre painting was far less prevalent, and so embracing this new Realist style was not as radical. The movement was popular in Germany and advocated by painters such as Adolph Menzel, Wilhelm Leibl and Max Liebermann. Celebrated artists such as the American James Abbot McNeill Whistler and British painter Ford Maddox Brown painted socially realist canvases that depicted the plight of ordinary people living in the real world. The 20th century Ashcan School, a group of American Realist painters living predominantly in New York City, was hugely inspired by the French Realism of the previous century and in turn provided the foundations for American Realism and the depiction of daily life among the poorer social classes.
Often confusion arises when talking about Realism and realist painting especially as the term was adopted by mainstream culture to refer to paintings that are intensely realistic in style and employ intricate illusionistic brushwork to create works that resemble photographs. After Impressionism became a popular movement which favoured a quick, evocatory style of painting, Realism became a term used to define paintings with a more restrained and traditional style.
On Singulart, our international selection of emerging and established artists shows the incredible diversity of Realism in contemporary art. Our painters who develop the Realism tradition include Alain Pontecorvo, Jesus Nieto Pantoja, Caroline Pool, Marc Dailly and Vincent Gautier. Discover the amazing versatility of realist paintings for sale on Singulart.