Realism in the visual arts

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Generally speaking, people like to organize, catalog, compartmentalize, systematize, classify, label, stack, file, group, categorize, rank, pigeonhole, and box up stuff. Art historians have mastered this ability, after all when you can stick a label on something it’s a lot easier to file and locate.

Realism in the fine arts is one such label.

Rembrandt - "Self Portrait at an Early Age" - 9" x 7.36" - Oil - 1628

Rembrandt – “Self Portrait at an Early Age” – 9″ x 7.36″ – Oil – 1628


Most art historians seem to agree that realism, with a capital R began as a movement in France in the mid-nineteenth century…and curiously they pretty much attribute its beginnings to a painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) titled “Burial at Ornans”.

At the time, the painting was considered too course to be considered art. It lacked drama and moral uplift. It portrayed people matter-of-factly, without flattery or condescension.

Gustave Courbet - "Burial at Ornans" - 123" x 261" - Oil - 1849

Gustave Courbet – “Burial at Ornans” – 123″ x 261″ – Oil – 1849


“Arts, Ideas and Civilization” by Jack Hobbs and Robert Duncan puts it like this: “What sets ‘Burial at Ornans’ apart from all previous work is its uncompromising objectivity. Not only was the subject taken from ordinary life; the artist defied traditional conventions of style and composition and supposedly, made no attempt to sentimentalize, ennoble, or even interpret the subject. Theoretically, the painting is a straightforward portrayal of real life.”

Courbet broke with the traditional art of his day which focused on romanticized historical subjects, allegories, idealized landscapes and genre scenes. Courbet chose to paint the ordinary, the unadorned scenes of everyday life and landscapes. The motto of the Realists was “one must be of one’s own time”.

A leading critic of the time dubbed his work “naturalism” but Courbet preferred the word “realism”…and that’s how it began.

To say however that Courbet was the first to paint realistically would be ridiculous. Certainly one could argue that some forms of realism have been created by man since he first began making marks.

Early First Century Greek - "Laocoon and His Sons"

Early First Century Greek – “Laocoon and His Sons”


Today we look upon Courbet’s work and ask, “What’s the big deal”…but then all art is a product of its time. Definitions can change over time. By today’s standards the room for what we classify as realism has been greatly enlarged. Sharon Griffes Tarr agrees, “Like Impressionism, realism also enjoys broad connotations today. Just open any magazine and see how artists are defining their works today. The definition includes any subject portrayal that is recognizable to various degrees, i.e.: abstracted realism, contemporary realism, photo-realism, etc. I’ve even seen artists who have used the term “impressionistic realism”. If we accept the trends, then the definition of realism must mean any portrayal of a subject where the subject can be identified.”

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot - "Ville dAvray" - 21.73" x 32" - Oil - 1873

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot – “Ville dAvray” – 21.73″ x 32″ – Oil – 1873


I asked my Facebook friends to share their definitions. What follows is an example of trusting your friends to bring something of worth to the table. They did not disappoint.

Skeets Richards – I see realism in art as an honest depiction of the world our senses detect but also a depiction which allows those senses, in combination with our thoughts, to fully expand upon and enjoy what we are looking at.

Wanda Caro – Feet on the ground, not on the clouds; you paint what you see, not what you dream.

Barbara Conaway – I think of realism as a depiction of something that can be identifiable in the final artwork, it exists within the style and not the style itself. To me realism includes everything from photorealism to impressionism, whereas abstraction is work that deals with ideas and feelings that don’t include an identifiable subject. I like the use of the term “contemporary realism” because it can be used today by so many artists that combine the teachings of the old masters with newer techniques.

Ralph Goings - "Donut" - 30"x 43" - Oil

Ralph Goings – “Donut” – 30″x 43″ – Oil


Debra Norton – I agree with what James Gurney says in his book “Imaginative Realism”. Realism in art has as its “goal to represent the real world truthfully and objectively, based on close observation of common details and contemporary life.” He defines photorealism “as the resemblance of a work of art to particular qualities of photographic representation. The process of photography flattens objects, which shows up in photorealistic painting, but realism gives objects the volume they have in real life.”

Garin Baker – As Baudelaire said in his essay of 1854, “The Heroism of Modern Life”…”A work of art that holds allegiance with a truthful and honest representation of the artist’s inner or outer reality, communicating a personal truth and resonance about humanity and life in all it’s magnificence.”

Edward Hopper - "House by the Railroad" - 24"x 29" - Oil  (1925)

Edward Hopper – “House by the Railroad” – 24″x 29″ – Oil   (1925)


Nancy Peterson – Realism in a painting, in its truest form, represents everything just as it is and not how you would perceive it to be.

Trung Cao – To me, realism is any art that holds true to the natural world such as light, form, perspective, etc. Subject should not be of importance.

Jack Liberman – Realism is painting a subject with the creative use of light, atmosphere, design and sensitivity to the big idea or thought that inspires one to want to communicate a human emotion that one feels… and to state it in the most efficient manner by subordinating things so that one focuses on the couple of important things that conveys the reason for the painting. Realism is not painting every detail like a needlepoint or a picture postcard camera image that has no selectivity. The best realism is universal and ageless and is a perfect balance between form and content. The best painting that survives the test of time is Realism.

Roxanne Naydan – I found a statement by Linda Nochlin which goes like this: “The Realist credo is a truthful, objective and impartial observation of the real world based on meticulous observation of contemporary life.” Personally, I don’t see how any observation can be regarded as impartial, so even if the rendering is truthful, one’s vision of reality is not unbiased. Even a photorealist might edit, determining what to illuminate/what to obscure. Furthermore, our uniquely personal visions of reality and how we chose to portray it, seems to me to be at the very essence of what makes it so precious!

Thomas Worthington Whittredge - "Indian Summer" - 18.5" x 15.35" - Oil

Thomas Worthington Whittredge – “Indian Summer” – 18.5″ x 15.35″ – Oil


I really like this one by Jolyn Wells Moran, “There’s no such thing as realism in painting, but when we see a painting, we may call it realism when it’s a reasonable facsimile.”

In truth, she’s correct. Even the best of our paintings are merely poor, superficial facsimiles of reality, having no inherent life, and incapable of truly capturing what we see.

Don Gardi has an interesting take on the subject. “A photo or computer screen can both be made up of dots or squares and still represent realism or for that matter an abstract, or any other style. Realism is like many forms of art and is basically a style of painting in which the artist’s intent is to as closely as possible reflect the natural state of the subject in terms of light, color, shape, and form. Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined.”

Ed Pointer - "On a Flint Hills Ranch" - 16"x 20" - Acrylic

Ed Pointer – “On a Flint Hills Ranch” – 16″x 20″ – Acrylic


And then there’s my longtime friend and mentor, Ed Pointer, who sparked the whole idea for this blog when he sent me an article he wrote, titled On Realism. He has serious concerns about the current Realism movement. He confesses to becoming somewhat weary of the whole realist painting scene. “It is in fact becoming so common as to cause boredom.” He believes that the uninformed art viewer is oriented toward a photographic presentation and that, in part, has sparked the increased market for such painting endeavors.

He continues, “If anything today, in the age of digital photography, I wonder why more realists aren’t dedicated to photography rather than the inhalation of fumes as they tightly render something that could be done more interestingly with a little photo-creativity.”

At this point, he references the work of Desiree Dolron, intricately linked to the Flemish School of painters, but with a 21st century vision. Although her works are digitally created and at times monumental in size, the result Pointer feels, is not photography and not painting but it suggests painting and doesn’t look photographic.

Desiree Dolron "Xteriors VIII"

Desiree Dolron “Xteriors VIII”


Pointer continues, “Of course this (photo-creativity) is accomplished by realists to the detriment of the purist who insists on gathering all the skill and mechanical perfection possible to further enhance his craft. However, in their pursuit of how tightly and accomplished they can duplicate a subject, some contemporary realists lack the visionary attributes of the Impressionists of yesteryear. In my opinion, realism of today has fallen into disrepair. It’s first mechanical failure being what is known as ‘photo realism’, where a slide is projected onto a canvas and meticulously duplicated. Though this is not true of all photo realism, it is true of much of it. Today, with digital photography, realism owns many crutches; projecting images and surface painting them is prominent in many who produce realistic paintings.”

Pointer breaks realism into two types: 1) Extreme realism: Paintings representing in exact detail various subjects as they appear to us. 2) Creative realism: Representing various subjects loosely by interpreting them as they appear to us.

Edgar Degas - "Diego Martelli" - 43.31"x 39.29" - Oil - 1879

Edgar Degas – “Diego Martelli” – 43.31″x 39.29″ – Oil – 1879


He believes the painting of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas clearly represents the latter. “It is beautifully composed and rather loosely painted yet still realistic; this is the kind of realism I prefer because it is an immediate apprehension of the subject and presents the artist’s impression of Monsieur Martelli while also demonstrating Degas’ approach as one who knows and is perhaps well acquainted with Martelli; the two combine then to give a unique and personal interpretation of Diego. It is not cold, neither is it purely observational.”

I think most of us would agree that each form of realism shown, plus thousands of other examples we could site, all have their place and their collectors. There’s plenty of art in various techniques to satisfy any artistic taste.

As one of the articles I’ve read states, “Realism in art is a relative concept: the degree to which an art style is perceived as realistic depends on who is looking at it.”

There you have it…many opinions, many approaches, and varied results…all adding to the story of man and the visual arts.

Special thanks to all my Facebook friends who were kind enough to respond to my request for a definition of “realism”. Sorry I couldn’t share every single response.


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



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