Artworks and Artists of American Realism

Progression of Art

Paul Revere

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.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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

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".

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic (1875)

The Gross Clinic

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.

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art & the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

George Bellows: Stag at Sharkey's (1909)

Stag at Sharkey's

Artist: George Bellows

Associated primarily with the rise of New York's Ashcan School, Bellows is perhaps best known for his sports-themed works, and especially, a series of brutal boxing paintings. His signature work, Stag at Sharkey, involved an illegal bout which he was drawn to, not for the sport (which he claimed not to understand), but for its raw brutality. Amateur boxing bouts were illegal in New York and so contests such as this had to take place in privately run clubs. Tom "Sailor" Sharkey, a US Navy veteran, and former boxer himself, founded his eponymous club as a venue for men seeking to watch and/or participate in amateur boxing bouts. When an outsider came to compete, they were given temporary membership to the club and were known as "stags". Bellows, whose studio was located across the street from the venue, was able to watch fights and produced several preparatory sketches.

Two boxers are locked in a hold as they compete in the center of a ring. The rivals are represented through a pyramidal composition. Looking for potential rule infringements, meanwhile, a referee is hunched closely to the right of the fighters. A cigar-chewing ringside spectator turns towards the painter, imploring him (and the viewer), through his pointing finger, to give our full attention to the fight at hand. Indeed, Bellows separates the fighters from their surroundings, not only through the ringside ropes, but through the bold, but naturalistic, use of color and shading. The realist quality of the painting is evident not just in the choice of subject matter and setting, but also in Bellows's skill at rendering the intense physicality - the interlocked, sinewy bodies of the boxers - and energy - the rumbustious crowd and the urgent (futile?) intervention of the referee - by means of fluent impressionistic brushstrokes. Many have read this painting, one of the most iconic of twentieth century American art and as the perfect analogy for the trials and tribulations of working-class urban survival in the early years of the century.

Oil on canvas - The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930)

American Gothic

Artist: Grant Wood

Grant Wood, one of America's foremost Regionalist painters, made a name for himself painting archetypal rural subjects that embodied the values of hard work, community, and austerity. He shot to fame almost overnight and captured the public's imagination with this and other works that celebrated a version of American identity through clarity and precision. Wood produced this work while visiting the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. Inspired by the little wood farmhouse, with a single oversized window made in a style called Carpenter Gothic, Wood said he "imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house". His models were his dentist and his younger sister, Nan (though many read them as man and wife). Both are dressed in conservative dress and painted in dark, stern colors. The pitchfork in the centre - which was an old-fashioned tool even in the 1930s - dominates the frame. While the subject matter was distinctly midwestern, the highly detailed, polished style and the rigid frontality of the two figures came from the realist Flemish Renaissance art which Wood had studied during his travels to Europe a decade before.

Despite being an overtly realist work, Wood's painting has in fact been met with confusion and ambiguity. Some commentators are still unsure as to whether this painting celebrates the subjects or satirizes them. Does it represent the present moment? Or is it nostalgic? Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith said: "The Regionalist movement, was thought of celebratory by its participants, a revival of the values of the Midwestern heartland of America - this in spite of the fact that the Midwesterners of the time were often resistant to, and sometimes deeply offended by, the way in which leading Regionalists chose to depict them". Wood himself did not offer much by way of clarity when his painting was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago (winning him a $300 prize). He said simply that it represented the "types" he had known all his life, and that he had not intended to ridicule them by pointing to faults such as "fanaticism and false taste". However one chooses to read it, the painting has become iconic and is one of America's best known and well-loved works.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Artist: Dorothea Lange

An image as iconic as Wood's American Gothic, Migrant Mother is one of the most widely recognized photographs in documentary history and shows a woman in a migrant pea-pickers camp during the Dust Bowl crisis. Their faces turned away from the camera, her two young children cling to their mother as she holds an infant, swaddled in a worn blanket, and looks pensively into the far distance. The photograph was originally captioned "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California" and was one of several images that Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson and her family in their makeshift camp.

The image was in fact part of a documentary project, supported by the Resettlement Administration, and subsequently renamed the Farm Security Administration, where Roy Stryker, head of the photographic division, hired photographers, "to document the American way of life". Lange's photographs appeared in a 1936 issue of the San Francisco News, following a story highlighting the near starvation conditions in the camp, and contributed to the success of the relief effort. Stryker felt Lange's image symbolized the entire project. As he said, Migrant Mother "has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal". Reproduced in textbooks, postage stamps, political campaigns, and museum displays, the image has become not only a symbol of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis, but also, as historian Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites put it, "a template for images of want" and a "powerful statements on behalf of democracy's promise of social and economic justice".

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942)


Artist: Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, a careful, thoughtful, artist who would observe his scenes for hours before putting brush to canvas, created more than 800 paintings, watercolors and prints, as well as numerous drawings and illustrations. He depicted the realities of modern alienation through images of people whose faces were often so still they seem arrested by time. As art historian Avis Berman wrote: "Each canvas represented a long, morose gestation spent in solitary thought". Nighthawks has become one of the best known images of twentieth-century art. Inspired by a restaurant on New York's Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet, the image - with its carefully constructed composition and total lack of narrative - has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. The large windows of the diner show four individuals, sitting together but alone at a countertop under fluorescent lighting. They are seemingly sat in silence, lost in thought at an unspecified time of night. If there is conversation, the viewer is not invited. Of Nighthawks Hopper said: "unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city".

This piece embodies the Americana that much of the Realist art of the time displayed; the coffee, the cigar advert, the cash register, the salt and pepper shaker and napkin holders all invite the viewer to share in their lived experience of the anonymous diners. It was signifiers such as these that prompted some critics to associate Hopper with the Ashcan School (although at that suggestion the artist himself baulked, "I've never painted an ash can in my life" he said). As art historian Dr Beth Harris said: "There is an implication that we are alone. It almost starts to feel frightening. But you can imagine light around it at another time of the day. It's now eerily silent. We just want to know - what are these figures doing here". This echoed the heightened feeling of alienation during wartime America. The cities emptied under the cloud of anxiety hanging over the nation.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago


This is Harlem

Artist: Jacob Lawrence

African American artist Jacob Lawrence, an alumnus of various New York Art schools, was a member of the New Deal, Federation Art Project. He was also a part of the Harlem Renaissance - a New York movement that was committed collectively to representing the lived experience and history of African Americans but without a single unifying style - Lawrence combined elements of Social Realism and semi-abstraction in compositions that used a vivid palette to create compelling community narratives. Lawrence wanted to bring the Black experience into the canon, after realizing from a young age that his education neglected African American art history. Lawrence painted from his everyday life and in This Is Harlem we see a colorful street scene represented through advertising hoardings, telephone cables, a community church, and crowded residential blocks. Through the middle of the canvas march city-dwellers, hands pushed into pockets as they hunch from the cold. The picture plane is flattened and the perspective is off kilter - a human dwarfs a passing truck while a dog out-spans a car, for example.

In comparison to other Realists working in the city, Lawrence brought a greater sense of celebration and spirituality to his work. Harlem was a locus for music, literature, theatre and visual arts and this work pays tribute to the creative lifeblood of the neighborhood; from the figures cavorting on a street corner, the signage ("Dance", "Bar", "Beauty Shoppe"), the color of the church's stained glass windows and the posters/paintings hung on the sidewalk. Lawrence's style and subject matter reflected his desire to connect with a broad audience; the bold colors and detailed figuration were designed to promote the Harlem narrative. As curator Jacquelyn Serwer said, Lawrence wanted to make sure "that important aspects of African American history were documented in a way that could be appreciated and understood by a very broad audience".

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington


Kennedy Motorcade

Artist: Audrey Flack

As Flack moved from her early career gestural abstraction and self-portraiture into Photorealism, she turned her gaze away from the self onto the realities of the outside world. She achieved the photo-real effect by projecting, tracing and re-colouring real historical events onto over-size canvases. She would often use an airbrush as a means of bringing the burnished gleam of advertising to her subject matter thus lending her art a hyperrealistic quality. Flack was one of several artists who moved beyond the introspection of abstraction towards the re-staging of popular imagery and culture. However, in the 1960s, and even in the wake of Pop Art, it was still considered problematic for serious artists to directly copy photographs.

John and Jackie Kennedy are seen here leaving Dallas airport on November 22, 1963, just moments before his assassination. Flack wrote: "People were horrified at the subject matter. Everybody is smiling, and, of course, you know that one moment later Kennedy is going to get shot". The couple sit in the back of a convertible car surrounded by security and airport staff, waiting to make their ill-fated parade through downtown Dallas. Flack reproduced this scene from a color newspaper photograph of the Kennedys published at the time. Caught squinting in the glare of the Texan sun, the Kennedy's, accompanied by state governor John Connally, appear relaxed and happy, unaware of the momentous historical tragedy which is about to unfold. Whatever one's view on the meaning of "authentic" art, Flack's Kennedy Motorcade ranks as an innovative example of a Photorealist style that invites the spectator to reflect on the ontology of original art.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Queenie II

Artist: Duane Hanson

As one of the most popular American sculptors of the twentieth century, Hanson first achieved acclaim during the 1970s through a hyperrealistic style that saw his sculptures likened to the painters of the Photorealism movement. He is associated specifically with a series of uncanny life-size models of working-class American citizens which he recreated in painted polyvinyl, fiberglass resin, and bronze. Hanson's sculptures are celebrated for their meticulous attention to detail which include such features as real hair, fingernails, raised veins, and various skin blemishes. Dressing his figures in workers uniforms, or clothes bought from thrift stores, he helped to further define the status of his subjects through the appropriation of various found props.

Hanson's hyperrealist works often trick the eye and the artist has spoken of his fascination with tromp l'oeil painters such as John Frederick Peto. But this knowledge rather belies the fact that his sculptures also offer a more reflective experience through their realist qualities. As he said, "In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another. In the quiet moments in which you observe my work, maybe you will recognise the universality of all people". Hanson was not trying to trick his audience into thinking his figures were somehow real, however. His intention was rather to illicit a sense of connectivity between these everyday American "types" and the people who came to the gallery to view them. Some critics still read his pieces as satire because there was a humorous quality to be had by (dis)placing his figures in surroundings (the gallery) that were unfamiliar to them. But humor notwithstanding, Hanson's intentions always remained true to his empathetic humanist worldview.

Polychromed bronze, with accessories - Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York


Michelle Obama

Artist: Amy Sherald

Sherald's art focuses on African American cultural history and specifically the representation of the African American body in black and white photography. Her work is, in the words of art critic William S. Smith, part of a move in contemporary American Realist art to "narrate histories of struggle, ennoble quotidian experiences, and project a better future without lapsing into idealism". Sherald adopts a monochrome technique, known as grisaille (shaded grays), to render the former First Lady's skin tone. On the one hand, this strategy was a means of challenging the viewer's assumptions about color as race, but the grisaille technique was also a direct reference to Sherald's childhood when she learned of her grandmother through studying old black and white photographs in which her skin was represented in like tones of monochrome. Indeed, Sherald described her paintings as a "meditation on photography".

The Smithsonian says of the painting: "Mrs. Obama's unnaturally colored skin asks us to consider both her race and her humanity. While the use of gray in lieu of more natural skin tones reduces the reference to her race, the blunt removal also draws attention to her skin color, highlighting her racial identity. The gray tones, in particular, reference nineteenth-century photographic traditions, wherein the emerging photographic medium allowed free African Americans to celebrate themselves and craft their own unique (and positive) identities. Whereas the grand portraiture traditions of painting and sculpture were largely out of reach, photography was an accessible medium". The other dominant feature of the portrait is Mrs. Obama's personal choice of dress. Designed by Michelle Smith, and looking beyond its nod towards 1960s Op Art, "Sherald recognized its visual affinities with the quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama. The quilts of Gee's Bend, a remote black community of the descendants of former slaves, are bold and improvisational, and reference the independence and resourcefulness of the African American experience".

Oil on linen - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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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]. .
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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