Realism Art Movement: History, Artists, Artwork

realism art movementThe Realism art movement was born in the middle of the 19th century as a response to Romanticism and History painting. Realism movement thrived in France from 1840 to the end of the nineteenth century and tried to depict modern life honestly and impartially. Characteristics of the realism art movement was that the Realist painters employed regular workers, ordinary people in everyday settings engaged in actual occupations as a subject matter for their paintings in favor of portrayals of true life. Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-Baptiste were the leading Realist artists.

The Realism art definition is sometimes mistaken with any realistic-appearing work, so what precisely is Realism in art? Realistic art depicts scenes from real life or the natural world with as little artistic license as possible.

The Realists democratized art by portraying contemporary issues taken from the working class’s everyday life as French society battled for democratic transformation. Realism was founded on constant surveillance of modern life, contrasting the glorified classicism of academic art and the exotic topics of Romanticism. Realism artists set out to portray the ordinary, the common and the forgettable including the lives, appearances, struggles, habits, and mores of the middle and lower classes. In fact, they continued to mimic everything about contemporary life and society, from its mental attitudes to its physical surroundings to its financial situations, even though these had not previously been recognized.

Realism’s development was propelled by several significant philosophical advances made in the first half of the nineteenth century. Among these are the rise of professional journalism, with its objective documentation of current events, and the invention of photography, which can structurally replicate visual appearances with great precision. Realism ultimately influenced practically all types of art and impacted the development of Impressionism.

History of Realism Art Movement

Beginning of realism

Realism emerged in France during the 19th century as a response to the profound societal transformations of the Industrial Revolution. This movement emphasized the authenticity of the subject matter, as artworks depicted mundane and daily occurrences in a more realistic way. The elements connected to traditional high art have been abandoned by naturally representing themes and works. Today, realism refers to paintings that are so realistically rendered that they resemble photographs. This movement created controversy because of its deliberate criticism of societal ideals and the upper classes, as well as its examination of the new values of the industrial revolution. Realism is recognized as the beginning of the modern art movement owing to its incorporation of contemporary life into art.

Courbet was the foremost advocate of realism and questioned the prevailing style of historical painting at the state-sponsored art academy. His innovative paintings, A Burial at Ornans and The Stonebreakers, represented natives of his area. Both paintings were executed on enormous canvases generally utilized for historical depictions. Courbet’s early works imitated the refined style of Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Titian, but from 1848 he developed a style influenced by standard prints, shop signs, and the work of folk artisans. Courbet’s first controversial picture, The Stone Breaker, rejected the pastoral tradition of depicting human characters in conjunction with nature. Instead, he portrayed two males in a contemporary setting. The concealing of their faces highlights the degrading character of their repeated, tedious task.

Middle of Realism art movement

Although Realism art originated in France, it gained followers across Europe and the United States. In the 1860s, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler befriended Courbet and worked in the Realist style. However, Whistler advocated “art for art’s sake” and opposed Courbet’s notion of painting as a moral or social activity. Nevertheless, his Symphony in White, no. 1: the White Girl, sparked controversy at the same Salon of 1863 that Manet courted scandal since critics believed that it evoked the lost innocence of a bride.

Thomas Eakins became the most renowned among the Realist painters in the United States by incorporating photographic research into his paintings and showing the personality of his subjects via careful observation. The Gross Clinic (1875), a depiction of Dr. Samuel Gross doing major surgery in an operating room, is represented with exactitude. His use of contemporary settings adheres to the Realist tenet that an artist must represent the present.

Realist Ilya Repin was the most important painter of his nation in the 19th century and was responsible for attracting European audiences’ interest to Russian visual art. His giant canvas Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) praised the physical prowess of Russia’s lowest-ranking workers. After visiting Paris and becoming acquainted with the emerging Impressionist movement, Repin preferred to continue painting in the Realist style because he believed Impressionist painting lacked the social impulses essential to contemporary art.

The Legacy of Realism Art

Realism gained a lot of clout in the art world because its tenets fundamentally altered how art was produced. Although the movement had counterparts in other European nations that imitated its aesthetics and philosophies, none of them generated the same level of controversy as the original movement in France.

Since only the state-sponsored art academy supported history and genre scenes, realism arose from a societal uprising against painting traditional forms that had been institutionalized and recognized as proper in society. This official support of the artistic movement was less prevalent in other European nations; thus, realism did not seem to be such an extreme trend.

During its height, French Realism had a significant impact on several other nations, including Socialist Realism in Soviet Russia between 1925 and 1935. The American Realist movement of the early 20th century, known as the Ashcan School, established the groundwork for American Realism and Social Realism, which flourished throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Realism is regarded as the earliest contemporary art movement despite never existing as a fully cohesive group. But even after learning about the movement’s history, it is simple to wonder what realism in art is. To convey a realistic slice of reality, realist paintings have essentially abandoned the conventionally accepted and idealized depictions of the subject matter and settings in favor of an accurate and sincere picture of real life.

Characteristics of Realism art

Characteristics of realism art include photographic accuracy, Focus on contemporary subjects and settings, the use of detail, the use of color, and emphasis on everyday life.

Photographic accuracy

Realism aimed to be as photorealistic as possible, depicting ordinary life down to the details of the scene, clothes, and lighting. This quality is shown in the 1852 painting “Young Ladies of the Village” by the French artist Gustave Courbet, which portrays Courbet’s three sisters in simple garb on a stroll in the countryside with a girl, some animals, and some bare plants and stones.

Gustave Courbet "Young Ladies of the Village" (1852)

According to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting was roundly panned for being too bland and conventional in its day since it lacked both the symmetrical form of neoclassicism and the exotic characteristics of romanticism.

Focus on contemporary subjects and settings

Artists and painters in the realist movement sought to portray individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds in an equal light. Working in a turbulent period defined by revolution and vast social upheaval, Realist painters substituted the idealistic images and poetic conceits of conventional art with real-world happenings, giving the peripheries of society the same significance as grand history paintings and analogies.

William Harnett "For Sunday’s Dinner" (1888)

Within the visual arts world, Illusionistic Realism tries to make the most realistic picture possible by showing every angle and every angle of light and color. Consequently, beginning in the 1850s, these naturalist works conveyed an impression of how the world seemed. Artistic trends such as American Regionalism, Social Realism, and Kitchen Sink Realism were thought to have originated during this period.

The use of detail

Realist artists included as much detail as they could in their works, completely contrasting the smooth appearance of romantic Impressionism. To produce a piece of art that seemed as if the spectator could reach out and touch it, great consideration had to be given to shadows, light bouncing off surfaces, depth perception, and perspective.

Jan van Eyck "Porträt des Mannes mit dem Turban" (1433)

This entailed completely capturing the topics in both still life and live scenarios. When defining the subject’s shape, traditional Realism allowed little opportunity for variation.

Use of color

Many of the first Realist artists used a warmer color palette and tonal range in their works. The works of Jean-Francois Millet and Paul Delaroche, such as “The Gleaners,” include a color palette heavy on browns, reds, blacks, and ivories.

Jean-François Millet " The Gleaners" (1857)

While today’s realists continue to favor warm color schemes, they are more likely to experiment with colder color schemes to achieve shocking results. Paintings like “The Painter’s Daughter” by Lucian Freud exemplify the Realist tradition in contemporary art in the modern world.

Emphasis on everyday life

In contrast to the traditional focus on biblical, heroic, regal, or mythological figures among earlier painters, realists attempted to show the common people instead.

Thomas Eakins' "The Gross Clinic" (1875)

This feature is typical in realism art, such as Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” (1875), which depicts a patient amid surgery. Artists in the 16th and 17th centuries would never have painted such mundane topics, preferring to depict scenes from historical or mythological events.

Famous artists of the realism art movement and their artworks

Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Andrew Newell Wyeth, Rosa Bonheur, and Edward Hopper are the most famous realism artists.

Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877)

  • Full Name Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet
  • Born June 10, 1819 (Ornans, France)
  • Died December 31, 1877 (La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland)
  • Notable Artworks Burial at Ornans, The Stone Breakers

French realist painter Gustave Courbet laid the groundwork for Realism in the 1840s when he started to paint expansive scenes of rural life and factory workers. Before Courbet, artists often idealized locations, which meant they wouldn’t portray things precisely as they were seen. Courbet thought this was not good for painting since it took the artist’s unique voice out of the piece. Courbet’s paintings, “Burial at Ornans” and “The stonebreakers,” were the paintings most associated with him throughout his life and career. Both paintings were executed on enormous canvases generally utilized for history paintings.

Courbet opposed the idealization and romanticization of art in his works and advocated that other artists do the same by making everyday life and present issues the emphasis of their artwork. According to Courbet, capturing a real slice of life allowed him to see society at its best, worst, and most average and this was the only way to make truly democratic art. Most of Courbet’s works provide a realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century French society, but they also elevate ordinary people to the level of symbols of the human battle for survival. Despite his short descriptions not being well-received by the art world, he could convey the honesty and respect associated with human difficulties among the working class.

Edouard Manet

  • Full Name Édouard Manet
  • Born January 23, 1832 (Paris)
  • Died April 30, 1883 (Paris)
  • Notable Artworks Olympia, The Luncheon on the Grass

French modernist painter Edouard Manet is admired for his straightforward portrayals of ordinary life. The idea that great art should not address current issues was broken by works like Olympia, a completely naked modern woman. Manet’s depictions of café life in Paris are credited with encouraging painters to abandon any creative restraints in the decades that followed.

Even in crowded settings, like a café patio, Manet’s figures seldom make eye contact with one other, creating the impression that they are isolated individuals. Sometimes it’s unclear to the spectator how these seemingly unrelated characters are linked. Manet produced eleven portraits of Berthe Morisot and ten of Victorine Meurent, two of the most beautiful ladies he had ever seen. Instead of portraying fleeting moments of light as the impressionists did, he focused on depicting the reality of daily life. This method allowed him to paint seascapes at Boulogne, where he often went on vacation and still life themes, portraits, cats, and horse races.

Andrew Newell Wyeth

  • Full Name Andrew Newell Wyeth
  • Born July 12, 1917 (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania)
  • Died January 16, 2009 (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania)
  • Notable Artworks Christina’s World

Popular among art enthusiasts, Realist painter Andrew Wyeth of the 20th century is known as the “Painter of the People” for his regionalist works that are both very realistic and indefinably imaginative. His paintings, mostly landscapes and portraits from Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley and Maine’s Port Clyde, use a generic visual framework to examine universal human experiences like isolation and loneliness.

The painting that brought him the most fame was called Christina’s World. In the years after his passing, academics have reexamined Wyeth’s realism and relationship to modern art, and his stature as a significant artist has only increased. Wyeth served as a model for upcoming creatives and filmmakers.

Rosa Bonheur

Full Name

Born March 16, 1822, (Bordeaux, France)

Died May 25, 1899 (Thomery, France)

Notable Artworks Ploughing in the Nivernais

French artist Rosa Bonheur specialized in the anomalies movement. One of the most well-known female artists of the 19th century, Bonheur produced sculptures and paintings but is most recognized for her realistic portrayals of animals. Throughout her career, Bonheur’s paintings, which skillfully represent endemic and exotic creatures, would enjoy significant critical and financial success.

Her involvement in prestigious shows like the Paris Salon of 1848 was one of the liberties she received that were not typically accessible to female painters at the time. She was regarded as a significant character in art history after her death on May 25, 1899, particularly because of her position as a female painter. Important institutions throughout the globe, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, include her paintings in their collections.

Edward Hopper

Full Name Edward Hopper

Born July 22, 1882, (New York, United States)

Died May 15, 1967, (New York, United States)

Notable Artworks Nighthawks

The American realist painter Edward Hopper was a major figure in developing one of the more recent varieties of realism art, American realism, which emerged in the early 20th century. Hopper’s paintings often depicted the loneliness and alienation of modern life. As the most well-known member of the American Realist movement, Hopper is often credited with painting the most authentic depiction of the United States in the twentieth century. Nighthawks, painted in 1942, is perhaps his most famous American realism art. The tragic aftermath of World War Two served as an inspiration for his art, which has recurring themes of solitude, moral decay, and bleak grief.

Hopper’s paintings delved into the core of modern city life, and his depictions of humans often showed them to be alone and cut off from their surroundings. He often used references to the psychological states of the people in his paintings, which pushed viewers to fill in the details of the characters’ stories on their own via comprehension. It profoundly impacted the art world, inspiring subsequent movements to leave the interpretation of their works to the audience.

Major Artworks of the Realism art movement

Some of the most famous realism artworks include; The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, Christina’s World by Andrew Newell Wyeth, The Gleaners by Jean François Millet, and Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoi.

The Stone Breakers


Artist: Gustave Courbet

Year: 1849

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 170 cm × 240 cm (65 in × 94 in)

The Stone Breakers, A realist painting, showed an elderly and a young peasant smashing rocks. The Stone Breakers made its debut in the 1850 Paris Salon. The subject matter was from daily life as a work of realism. This painting was created to depict the rigorous work that impoverished people had to do. No face characteristics were included for the figures to illustrate everyone and not just one specific person. The Stonebreakers artwork was destroyed in February 1945 when allied troops bombed a van carrying it and more than 150 other art pieces. The artwork has several characteristics of Realism painting, such as an emphasis on common laborers and locations.

Courbet’s brushwork is rough, more so than one would anticipate for the middle of the nineteenth century, much like the stones themselves. This shows that the artist intentionally rejected the perfectly polished, sophisticated Neoclassicist style, which still dominated French painting in 1848, partly by how he painted his canvas. Artists have historically focused much of their efforts on their works’ hands, faces, and foregrounds, but The Stone Breakers was a different case. If closely examined, it is evident that the painter makes an effort to be fair, giving equal attention to the rock and the faces. The painting seems more realistic in many aspects since it lacks art fundamentals, such as a composition that chooses and organizes aerial viewpoint and completion.


Artist: Edward Hopper

Year: 1942

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 84.1 × 152.4 cm (33 1/8 × 60 in.)

Current Location: The Art Institute of Chicago

The painting shows a late-night cafe with three people gathered, each buried in their thoughts. The work’s brilliance is due to Hopper’s knowledge of the expressive potential of light acting on simple forms. The image displays a single light source that illuminates the whole space, overflows into the street, and stands out dramatically from the other shadows in the area. Hopper’s manipulation of the environment and dramatic lighting, while seen as relatively basic, expressed the issues of alienation, sadness, and ambiguity in America after the war.

The canvas has a timeless, universal aspect that transcends its specific setting, making it a subject onto which one may project one’s reality. This is due to its meticulously planned arrangement, absence of story, and flat, abstracting planes of color. Hopper’s Nighthawks might be sat everywhere. The strength of the picture lies in its inherent universality. Additionally, the image has the power to stir up memories of a bygone America. This painting by Hopper was widely praised during the rise of the American Realist movement because it so accurately depicted ordinary life in the United States, and it continues to enjoy this level of fame in the modern world.

Christina’s World

Artist: Andrew Wyeth

Year: 1948

Medium: Tempera, Gesso

Dimensions: 82 cm x 1.21 m

Current Location: The Museum of Modern Art

In this painting, Wyeth characterized Olson as unable to move because of her disability, which showed the figure seated in the high grass and gazing at a lonely farmhouse. Olson was attempting to crawl across the field to get to the home, even though it seemed as if she was relaxing in the area. The awful reality that persons with polio had to live in was shown in Christina’s World. But rather than painting a gloomy scenario, Wyeth showed Olson as having a strong ambition to see the globe, as demonstrated by her readiness to crawl across the field.

This realism painting covers various contemporary topics, such as social isolation, the feelings and destiny of individuals with disabilities, and the sense of being lost and puzzled by the disheartening and painful reality. Andrew Wyeth created this painting depicting the nostalgic monotony of country life while adding excitement and interest via color, line, and space. What may otherwise have been a basic landscape gains a story through the tension between the two ideas, emphasizing the realistic qualities of the painting.

The Gleaners

Artist: Jean-François Millet

Year: 1857

Medium: Oil Paint

Dimensions: 84 cm x 1.12 m

Current Location: Musée d’Orsay

It shows three rural women engaged in one of the three steps required in gleaning: looking for corn ears, picking them up, and gathering them into a bundle. The laborious chore was one of the top jobs done by French peasants at the time, and it significantly contributed to the nutrition of rural laborers. Millet carefully considered the composition and used every available tool to give his figures an air of simple but massive grandeur. The sun’s slanted light highlights the gleaners’ sculptural quality, but their rigid attitudes and bulky features tend to draw attention to how difficult their labor is. Millet skillfully highlights the class gap by contrasting richness and poverty as well as light and shade. The hazy picture of the landlord’s foreman on a horse in the far distance further emphasizes how distant the landlord class is.

The higher classes were outraged by the painting’s aesthetic pretentiousness and social radicalism and associated it with the burgeoning Socialist movement. As a result, the painting encountered significant resistance due to its emphasis on the lowest strata of rural life. However, it was permitted to be shown in the Academy’s annual Salon. It was also highly regarded by French republicans for its true awareness of the rural poor and its respect for them.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Artist: Ivan Kramskoi

Year: 1883

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 75.5 cm × 99 cm (29.7 in × 39 in)

Current Location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Portrait of an Unknown Woman is representative of the realism art movement. The lady in the artwork wears a fur cap, leather gloves, and a black fur and velvet coat. At the Anichkov Bridge in Saint Petersburg, the lady is sitting on an open carriage.

Art historians have yet to determine her identity. In addition to not mentioning her in any of his writings or diaries, Kramskoi gave the picture the cryptic title Unknown, which sparked many rumors and contributed to its mysterious notoriety. When it was originally shown, Portrait of an Unknown Woman generated a lot of buzzes, more because of the subject matter than the beauty of the piece. Many detractors assumed the lady was a prostitute.

Realism vs. Romanticism

While the romanticism movement lasted from 1830 to 1860, the realism art period was from 1860 to 1890. Realist painters, as opposed to Transcendentalist and Romantic artists, used concrete imagery that adhered to the actual world rather than abstract, spiritual concepts. Since realism did not enhance or embellish things, it starkly contrasted with romanticism. While the Realism movement employed facts to portray real-world events, romanticism often depicted fantasy settings. The realist movement rebelled against the exotic subject matter, heightened emotionalism, and excessive drama of the Romantic period. Instead, it aimed to depict genuine and typical modern people and circumstances with honesty and realism without excluding unpleasant or reprehensible parts of life.

Romanticism was mainly dramatized and often depicted situations that were pure imagination. Still, the realism movement focused on that which was true and portrayed life of the lower classes. While the Romantic movement, which stressed heroic individual accomplishment, mysticism, and the power of emotions, predominated European intellectual life, the realism movement, which emerged in its aftermath, tended to laud actual people, hard effort, and social justice.

Realism vs. Impressionism

Realism is characterized as the ability to correctly and truthfully depict human subjects, objects, or circumstances. It is similar to impressionism but much more idealized and desires to recreate a particular moment from daily life. Both artistic approaches aim to capture reality, but impressionism has an emotional undertone that realism does not. Through paintings, engravings, or photos, realism art seeks to depict the world as accurately as possible. On the other hand, Impressionists want to paint simply what they observe while excluding information. Short brushstrokes, sloppy lines, and mixed colors reflecting daylight were used to get this. Despite having the same objective, it is simple to discern how serious realism is compared to how passionate and romantic impressionism is when examining them.

Winslow Homer is one such artist that would fall within the Realist art category. His etching, The Battle for the Union, 1862- A Bayonet Charge is a superb illustration of how he takes an incident and accurately captures what war was like. Many of his works of art show life in its unadulterated, natural state. While Impressionists emotionally present daily life for the audience, Realists aim to capture reality in its most natural form.

This piece of art by Claude Monet is a superb illustration of Impressionism. It shows the typical lifestyle of the upper class, with boats cruising on the sea and people unwinding in their gardens. The image is happy because of the colorfully brilliant and upbeat palette. The park is lined with flowers, making the spectator feel so glad. Monet does a fantastic job and can bring everyday life into the image while making the spectator feel something.

What Art Movements Were Influenced by Realism?

American painters quickly embraced realism as a consequence of its popularity in Europe. Particular examples of its impact include the unflattering portraits by Thomas Eakins, the candid observations of modern city life by Edward Hopper, and the body of “art for art’s sake” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Additionally, famous modern art trends like photorealism and hyperrealism were directly influenced by the realism movement. These subgenres highlight how realism’s strikingly contemporary emphasis has affected them and show how its revolutionary movement has left a lasting and ongoing legacy.




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