Realism (late 1800s-early 1900s)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art

In general, realism in art and literature refers to the attempt to represent familiar and everyday people and situations in an accurate, unidealized manner. More specifically, the term "realism" refers to a literary and artistic movement of the late 1800's and early 1900's. This movement was a reaction against romanticism. Romanticism was an earlier movement that presented the world in much more idealized terms.

Realism in Literature

Almost every work of literature has some degree of realism. This is because it is important for readers to recognize and identify with the characters and the world they inhabit. But realism as a distinct style and literary movement dates back to France in the early 1800's. That was when authors began writing works that possessed several unique characteristics: The stories, or plots, were simple and were secondary to the characters; the characters tended to be from the lower or middle class and spoke as people really did, not in poetic language; and the author's voice, such as in comments or asides, was rarely (if ever) heard. Honoré de Balzac led the way with his masterwork, The Human Comedy (1824-47). In this series of novels and stories, the lives of every class of people come alive on the pages through long, lively descriptions. His plots, however, retained the romantic quality of melodrama. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) was the first major work to fully embrace the realist style. It provided a frank, true-to-life portrayal of a woman seeking to escape her boring life through romantic involvements. This was shocking to readers of its day.

Great realist works in English literature include George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72) and the novels of Thomas Hardy. In the United States, realism was a popular style from the mid-1800's to about 1900. Among its practitioners were William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885) and Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady, 1881). Great Russian works of realism include Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862) and Leo Tolstoi's War and Peace (1869).

Realist drama is best represented by Norway's Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House, 1879), England's George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, 1912), and Russia's Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard, 1904).

A literary movement related to realism was naturalism. Naturalist authors also wrote about common people and everyday situations. But they studied human beings and their behavior with the objectivity of scientists. The characters in these stories are controlled by their heredity, environment, instincts, and passions. They live in a natural world that is indifferent to their plights. Leading naturalists included the French novelist Émile Zola (Germinal, 1885) and the Americans Stephen Crane (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893), Frank Norris (McTeague, 1899), and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, 1900).

Realism in Art

The realist movement in art also originated in France during the 1800's. The realists wanted to break away from the formal artistic styles and subjects of the past. So they created objective, unemotional works that were unadorned with imaginative flourishes. Their works typically portrayed ordinary, or working-class, people, as opposed to heroic, historic, biblical, or royal figures. They also depicted scenes of traditional life, such as rural landscapes with farmers herding oxen or harvesting grain. The realists sought to honor what they felt was the noble dignity of humble people leading simple lives.

The realists were led by Gustave Courbet. His The Burial at Ornans (1849) and other works were large-scale, unsentimental paintings of common people in everyday scenes. Other realists included the social and political satirist Honoré Daumier (The Washerwoman, 1863) and Jean François Millet (The Gleaners, 1857). American realists included the painters Thomas Eakins (The Gross Clinic, 1875) and Winslow Homer (Snap the Whip, 1872). Later American realists included Grant Wood (American Gothic, 1930) and Edward Hopper (Nighthawks, 1942). Modern artists have taken realism to new heights. They have created paintings so detailed and so realistic that they appear to be photographs. They have also made sculptures of human figures so lifelike that they are mistaken for real people. This kind of realism is often called photorealism or superrealism.

Two offshoots of the realist movement were the Barbizon School and the Ashcan School. The Barbizon School arose in the 1840's and 1850's. It was a group of French landscape painters working in the town of Barbizon. They painted outdoors and attempted to faithfully depict the fleeting qualities of nature. The Ashcan School flourished during the late 1800's and early 1900's in the United States. Its artists, such as Robert Henri (West 57th Street, New York, 1902), painted gritty scenes of city life, such as alleyways and industrial centers.

Realism has a long history in the visual arts. In ancient Greece during the Hellenistic era (323-146 B.C.), sculptors began depicting people as they really appeared. Previously, people had been portrayed according to the Greek concept of the ideal human form. But the realist movement in art grew out of a desire during the Middle Ages (500-1450) to depart from the flat, formal, and stylized art that was popular at the time. The Italian artist Giotto di Bondone led the way by painting biblical figures as emotional and lifelike as everyday people. An example is his Madonna and Child (early 1300's). The artists of this time also improved the depiction of reality. They did this by introducing perspective into their works and more realistic human forms based on detailed anatomical studies.

Reviewed by Donna Campbell
Associate Professor of English
Washington State University
Author, Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915

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