Summary of American Realism

The birth of Realism in art is often given a specific time and place - France, 1840 - from whence it spread (and transformed) as a pan-European response to the age of industrialization. It remains, however, an open-ended concept that has taken on a uniquely national bent when applied to American art. What might be generally agreed is that Realism is a tendency whereby the artist in question has either subverted, or overlooked altogether, Academy (or typical orthodox) standards in pursuit of a more "authentic", or "relevant", figurative art. Realist art typically responds to contemporary events and situations, sometimes as a form of social commentary or documentation. Not so much a movement, then, American Realism is a tendency that has traveled the timeline of American history since its birth as an independent country. Indeed, through its various manifestations, Realism has become an important instrument in shaping America's self-identity as a nation.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • By most art historians' accounts, John Singleton Copley holds the rank the greatest American painter of the eighteenth century. Known primarily for his portraits, he developed a realist style that captured his sitters, some of them the most important pioneers of the New World, in a naturalistic way and with very fine attention to small detail. Priding himself on his political neutrality, Copley brought a level of objectivity to portraiture that was wanting in even the best examples of his more austere European contemporaries.
  • In was an English émigré named Thomas Cole who instigated the rise of America's first school of landscapists. On the one hand, the Hudson River School was captivated by the majesty of the American landscape and its members bought into the European idea of the sublime power of nature. At the same time, the group, who took great national pride in the majesty of their own natural surroundings, began to record the dawning of the industrial age and America's ability to harness this "untamable" force. Overall what they achieved was a fine balance between the realms of realism and illusionism.
  • The loose-knit group of New Yorkers, known as The Ashcan School, delivered American art into the twentieth century by countering the soft palettes and flights of colorful splendor associated with the American Impressionists. The Ashcan School believed that an authentic American art could only be achieved through direct experience and by capturing the dynamics of city life on their canvases. Though they were apt to intensify the drama of their pictures through their preference for dark palettes and loose brushstrokes, theirs was a gritty and vital take on the realities of New York street-life at the beginning of the century.
  • The combined impact of Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s led to the development of national relief programs that included roles for artists and photographers in the worst-affected communities. In the Mid-Western Heartlands a style known as Regionalism emerged. Reviving the traditions of folk art, the Regionalists promoted archetypal American rural subjects that embodied the values of hard work, community, and austerity. The social project was mirrored in cities like New York where the Social Realists were producing figurative and realistic public murals of and for "the workers". The Social Realists insisted that their art be uses as a political "weapon" to be deployed against the perceived ills of American capitalism.
  • Following the intervention of Abstract Expressionism, American art renewed its interest in realism in the 1960s. The Photorealists, or Hyperrealists as they were also known, produced paintings that drew heavily on photography. With the photographic image projected onto the canvas, the Photorealists then produced precisely detailed paintings that they then made "hyperreal" by "touching up" with the veneer of an airbrush. Focusing mostly on machinery and objects of industry (cars, trucks, planes, vending machines and so on) and (specifically in the work of Audrey Flack) current news photography, the Photorealists offered a counter to the rise of Conceptualism and Minimalism.

Overview of American Realism

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation (c.1907-08)

George Bellows, one of the most prominent members of the New York Ashcan School, declared: "First of all, I am a painter, and a painter gets hold of life - gets hold of something real, of many real things", and when he does that, "that makes him think, and if he thinks out loud he is called a revolutionist".

Important Art and Artists of American Realism

Paul Revere (1768)

Artist: John Singleton-Copley

Singleton Copley was, by common consent, the greatest American painter of the eighteenth century. His painting of Paul Revere, the silversmith-cum-folk-hero of the American Revolution, predates Revere's historic night-time ride to Lexington on the eve of the revolution that alerted the colonial milia of the approach of British troops (and thus allowing Revolutionary leaders John Handcock and Samuel Adams to escape capture) and reveals him very much as an "ordinary" artisan.

On the one hand, Copley's painting presents an idealized version of Revere's working conditions: the table is too uncluttered and polished to resemble a working bench and the silversmith's clothes and hands are washed clean. On the other, it is, by the standards of the day, a naturalistic portrait. At a time when it was the norm for sitters to present to the artist/public in their "Sunday best", Revere is shown in his working clothes, a feature that hides his middle-class status. For instance, his shirt is fashioned from plain white cotton, he is missing and formal neckwear (such as a cravat) and his waistcoat is unbuttoned. Nor does Revere wear a jacket or wig, the latter especially being a staple status symbol for a person of Revere's social standing.

Although Copley prided himself on his political neutrality, his portrait of Revere carried with it more than a hint of political symbolism. A silversmith would craft many objects - buckles, cutlery, tankards, sugar tongs and so on - yet the fact that he is pictured with a teapot seems like a political statement. The year before the painting was produced, the British government has passed to so-called Townsend Act which imposed taxes on tea (in addition to some other imported goods). Tea had become a divisive commodity and led, ultimately, to the Boston Tea Party of 1773 in which radicals raided vessels in Boston Harbor and threw the cargo of tea overboard.

Thomas Cole: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836)

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836)

Artist: Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, supported the 19th century notion that God's divine presence was embodied in nature. And, perhaps because he was an Englishman, Cole was better placed (as an outsider) to appreciate the American wilderness as central to American national identity.

On the left diagonal, we see the evidence of the sublime (an artistic trope that expresses the "sublime" power of God through nature) as a thunderstorm of biblical proportions pours down angrily on a lightening-struck tree. While the left half of the composition is taken up by thick verdant woodland, deep greens and looming darkness, as our eye crosses the river, the image shifts in emphasis. Now we see a more pastoral scene rendered in lighter colors that speak of man's mastery over the fearsome landscape. This gives the painting its unique contemporaneous theme of manifest destiny.

Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith described this work as "an effort to marry a sensibility based on Claude Lorrain and the European ideal landscape to the recalcitrant facts of American nature". This is shown most emphatically to the right of the canvas where the grasses have been tamed by modern advances in agriculture. It was important for art of the time to represent farms and homesteads as a way of demonstrating how the pioneers had begun to own this majestic land of theirs. Furthermore, Cole wanted to show how the beauty of America's countryside could compete with the best that Europe had to offer. He wrote in 1835: "There are those [Europeans] who through ignorance or prejudice strive to maintain that American scenery possesses little that is interesting or truly beautiful [...] Let such persons shut themselves up in their narrow shell of prejudice - I hope they are few - and the community increasing in intelligence will know better how to appreciate the treasures of their own country".

Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic (1875)

The Gross Clinic (1875)

Artist: Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins was one of the founders and teachers of Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. Born and raised in Philadelphia, which at the time was the cultural capital of America, he showed an early talent for drawing. Working primarily in the second half of the 19th century, Eakins' style renounced idealized and romantic depictions and advocated instead for precise investigation of the human form and the natural world. He was fascinated with photography and made photographic studies of humans and animals in motion and thus pioneering a painterly style based on direct observation. The Gross Clinic celebrated the work of local physician Dr Samuel David Gross, who was instructing doctors on new surgical techniques as they removed a dead piece of bone from a young man's leg.

Inspired by Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632), Eakins' bloody composition is one of two parts. The top renders spectators in the theatre in soft, impressionistic detail. Hidden in the dark, some are busy working, others are clearly bored. In the foreground, however, Eakins's use of light picks out the important details such as the look of instruction on Dr Gross's face, the white cloths soaked in liquid anesthesia (ether), the blood on his and his colleagues' fingers, and the surgical tools (many of which Gross invented himself). The juxtaposition of dark and light; pain and boredom; bloody flesh and metal, represent the tension at the heart of American Realist painting: the new world is catching up with the old and a nation of wilderness is becoming an industrial superpower. However, many critics protested at the visceral nature of the work which upset Eakins's standing in Philadelphia society. Nevertheless, the work stands as a record (and celebration) of the great leaps and innovations in science and medicine coming out of America in the late nineteenth century.

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"American Realism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 08 Aug 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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